Alouette Meets Her Maker At The Dominion Observatory

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Vox Humana with a model of Alouette I at the Dominion Observatory.

I’m perversely surprised that this piece went so well on its first outing. Seeing it and hearing it in performance was an absolute joy, but it was also accompanied with a fit that lived somewhere between, “Did I really ask them to do all this?” and “I’ll never work in this town again”.

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Things go to hell in, “Alouettte Meets Her Maker”

There’s a lot of stuff in this score – it veers off the page from common practice to an extremely wild place; it’s a challenge to tame for performance. But Vox Humana handled it incredibly well. They were incredible and I owe them a big thanks.

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Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake | Music Video Release

Happy to report that you can now watch the music video for my string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake on YouTube. There are far too many people to thank for this one so I’ll sum it up by leaving the link below for your watching pleasure; and at times, horror.

A Canadian Composer Bestiary: Rodney Sharman

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To be commissioned to write a piece for an orchestra is objectively a pretty big deal. There are so many moving parts to deal with before you get to that first downbeat of the first rehearsal that it’s a miracle it happens at all. You have to have a hundred-ish musicians of sufficient technical expertise, gather them together at the same time, and have them be fed, rested, and sober (We’re looking at you, trombones). You have to have an ensemble leader who knows how to rehearse efficiently, who knows the music, and who is okay with being in front of a hundred people who could at one point think them an imbecile (It also helps to be charming!). You need administrators. Good ones. They need to deal with scheduling, advertising, all the exceptions for everything that has been carefully planned, venues being over-booked, venues catching on fire, artists being over-booked, artists catching on fire, and so on…

There’s also a certain amount of cultural cachet attached to symphonic music that owes itself to the legacy of the composers who wrote it. Composers like Mahler, Beethoven, and Shostakovich wrote big symphonic music believing that they were creating the biggest music of their time. Their audiences granted the music a reverence to match the intent and to this day, we still attach this reverence to symphonic music.

So if writing for orchestra is regarded as being a pretty big deal, it should then follow that people will look at composers who regularly write for orchestra as composers who have “made it”. I experienced a very visceral reminder of this cultural milieu when I sat down for coffee with composer Rodney Sharman, whom I consider to be among the most well established of Canadian composers. We spoke at length about all the popular topics composer talk about (Mainly coffee, what we were writing, and what we wished we were writing instead) but it was when he expressed regret he couldn’t gain traction as a choral composer that I stopped him and asked him to explain himself.

“I feel like I’m a choral composer, but I don’t think anybody else does. I honestly don’t know what it is”.

Rodney grew up as a boy chorister and is often be found in the bass section of local choirs when his schedule allows him the luxury. He’s quite aware of what choir can and can’t do. Also, at least in my experience, choirs are very receptive to new music which is not at all my impression of the orchestral world.

“Even though my music is not always conventionally diatonic, or what you might describe as the every-man level, every part is a melody so that every part sounds good by itself which is the secret of good choral music”.

The choir I sing in, Vox Humana of Victoria, is currently preparing one of his pieces for an upcoming concert: Requiescat, previously commissioned and performed by Vox Humana in 2015. It’s easily my favourite piece on the program and I say this knowing we are performing two of my own works.

Requiescat is a setting of a text by Oscar Wilde; an elegy mourning the death of the poet’s sister. Rodney’s setting is intimate – like a whisper inches away from your ear – and is intoned in a slow rhythmic dirge with lots of space for us to enjoy the sound of delicious harmonies decaying.

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

“I was introduced to this poem by a teenage student who was studying with me and writing choral music. He thought about setting this for choir and changed his mind and wrote something else. I never forgot it made a great choral text.”

Rodney might be falling victim to the unfair experience of being typecast as an instrumental composer. Choirs will inevitably experience a tinge of fear at the idea of having music written for them by a composer who writes primarily for instruments. The apprehension is easily understood: There are conventions of instrumental writing that a typical choir, or even the best choir ever, can’t easily replicate because they’re just not suited to the voice. Many instrumental composers just don’t have the experience with voices to recognize when they’re asking for something unreasonable.

It gets even worse than that: saying that a musical instrument can only reach you as deeply as you can be impaled by it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to me – if anything, it’s accurate – and I think that voices impale us most deeply of all. So if you’re pushing a voice somewhere it can’t be – even if it’s something as basic as the notes being too hard – the molecular level rejection you experience touches you a little more deeply. And that can be a bad thing.

All that being said, Requiescat is a gorgeous work – and it fits snugly into the voice. My hope is that we get more of Rodney’s choral music into our folders – a hope mirrored by the composer’s family: “My mother who has only heard a couple of my choral pieces – she always felt my choral music was my best music. So I offer it to the universe and hope that it will come back and multiply”.

 

Interplay 2019: Alouette Meets Her Maker

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The Vancouver Chamber Choir’s Interplay workshops are something you should be attending if you’re into choral music and you’re a Vancouver local. They provide the option for people to audit them but the choir really doesn’t do good enough of a job at advertising what a tremendous learning opportunity it can be as an observer.

The premise of the workshops is that participating composers have a piece read by one of the best and most experienced choirs in Canada (And led by one of the best and most experienced choir directors in our hemisphere). During the 30 or so minutes each piece is allocated, composers can ask questions and make suggestions to see how their writing matches up to reality without the pressure of a real world performance.

They are short workshops – but you see a LOT. If you’re a composer you should be doubly ashamed of yourself for not attending as they are treasure troves of new ideas and teachings of good choral writing.

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A photo of Alouette I in orbit

I submitted a new piece I had just completed, Alouette Meets Her Maker which is a sort of story-piece for SATB choir. The premise is based on the first Canadian satellite, Alouette I, waking up from her derelict orbit around earth. She first becomes aware of a miscellanea of radio signals bombarding her from earth before she focuses in on a singular mysterious signal coming from deep space. The signal coos to her lovingly before it’s intent is revealed to be malicious. Alouette is sent spinning into a panic and careens towards the planet surface where she explodes in a fiery heap. The piece closes with the last breath of life from her circuits before they are silenced forever.

The piece may seem like a big departure for me in a lot of ways. I ask the singers to employ a wide variety of techniques that challenge their comfort zone: singing nasally, singing in morse code, glissandi that cover their entire singing range, spoken parts, shouting rhythmic plosives, and singing random clusters. In other words, compared to my recent writing, these elements all together might seem like I’ve finally succumbed to lunacy. But you can find all these elements kicking around in my recent music – I’ve been putting little touches here and there to explore what you can do with the sonic palette of a choir. Alouette is simply my first attempt at making it happen throughout the whole piece.

I was surprised that the piece read so well. There are a lot of extra instructions to wade through. Both the choir and Jon gave me some helpful suggestions to sharpen up the piece before it winds up in folders. The experience was invaluable.

I will miss The Vancouver Peace Choir

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I may have gone to University to study music, but in so many more ways the Vancouver Peace Choir is my true alma mater. And it’s for this reason that I’m extremely sad to hear that it’s disbanding.

It was while attending University that I was bitten by the choral bug. I became extremely excited about writing for massed voices. But there wasn’t a good cooperative established between the composition department and the choral department. I tried, in vain, to get the choirs to look at my music but they were always to busy with their current performance schedule. Most of what I wrote ended up languishing in a desk drawer.

It wasn’t until after I graduated, and I began singing with The Vancouver Peace Choir, that I was FINALLY given the opportunity to write for massed human voices. Our director at the time, Tim Corlis, knew I was a composer and asked me to write for them.

The first piece was, bye bye blackbird

This opportunity was exactly what I craved!  For a composer, nothing compares to being around for the first rehearsals. You get to see what comes easily to the performers and what they struggle with. This is a powerful learning experience for a composer. It’s okay to ask a performer to do something that pushes what they’re capable of but you have to know when you’re doing it and by how much.

I have so many other wonderful memories of the group…

I remember rehearsing Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei – a choral setting of the second movement of his string quartet. It was an ambitious piece for us to sing for where we were at and the choir was likely relying heavily on some of the stronger singers to keep the tuning up and find the more problematic pitches.

On this particular rehearsal, many of these stronger singers were absent and our director was being gentle with us. When it came time to rehearse the Barber, he made a noise like a a tuba swallowing a used car salesman and suggested we skip ahead to different repertoire. Likely, he was trying to spare us the disappointment of failure.

The choir hummed a delicate revolt the way that choir’s often do and we sung the piece all the way through. We sung it very well. In fact, we never sang it better.

I remember performing Tim Corlis’s Missa Pax at a church in Richmond, BC and almost nobody showed up. The audience may have numbered approximately half of the choir membership. But I remember the intensity Tim brought out of us at the end of the Gloria. It was chilling – and you could see it in his face.

Speaking of Tim, I remember that he would show up to a performance in whatever shoes he was wearing, sometimes knee-high rubber boots and change out of them into Birkenstocks for the performance. The reason for this will forever remain a mystery.

I remember Alec asking what kind of Latin we were singing in and having no idea what he was talking about.

I remember a particular figure I had written in one of my pieces that didn’t follow the pattern established in the rest of the work and the director yelling, “That should be illegal!”

I remember having the opportunity to conduct one of my own works in rehearsal and realizing in that moment that I did not want to be a conductor.

I remember performing a piece by Eric North that opens with a guttural yell (unpitched) from the tenors and basses. Once, during a dress rehearsal I misread a cue and the whole choir to hear me perform it all by myself. Stephen Belanger said to me, “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong as loud as possible!”

I’ll miss you, Vancouver Peace Choir.

Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake Hits The Festival Circuit

I’m quite pleased to announce that my collaborative project with The Vandelé Quartet and Kale Beaudry will be screened at 2pm on October 28th at the Director’s Cut International Film Festival. Go Team!

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“A vile and corrupt banquet spills out like a drift of soggy pigs, threatening the etiquette and decorum of a luncheon that was almost nice enough for you to be invited to. As dinner guests Percy and Penny VonKrapp make mayhem into the table cloth, those on the sidelines can no longer stand idly by and are called to act.

Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake tells the tale of good and evil colliding in a surreal skirmish around the dinner table — the armies warring with cutlery instead of swords, and over fine linen instead of land.

At stake? Dinner as we know it”.

A List Of Thanks

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Thanks to the quartet – I love that you guys are game for anything. And I love that you made my music sound so good.

Thanks to Creative BC for your funding help – we couldn’t have done it without you.

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Thanks to Pyatt Hall, the Wise Hall, and The Western Front – Vancouver need a more venues like you.

Thanks Kale Beaudry – you are a warrior and your camera chops are your sword.

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Thanks Don Harder and Marco Del Rio for your help on the recording – and extra thanks to your ears.

Thanks to Chelsea for your gorgeous cakes – one day we will eat some together instead of destroying them.

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Thanks Kia and Josh for allowing yourselves to be pelted with cake and milk for two hours.

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Thanks to everyone in Vancouver that I’ve collaborated with over the past decade. It’s been a privilege to work with so many great people.

AND THANKS MOM!