Composing During The Pandemic; a review

I’ve somehow managed to eek out an existence as a composer by fitting my composing time between all the spaces between life. Sometimes it leaves me feeling bloated; I have a young daughter who needs my attention, I have a job that requires me to be rested and mostly human most of the time, and I have a partner who is usually satisfied with knowing that aspire to have mostly human-like qualities.

But something surprising happened during the pandemic in that artists I know reached out to me and brought my work to life in some pretty exciting ways.

We have a set of pieces, that we’ve now renamed (for the third time) Murderous Melodies, that I’d almost completely forgotten that were adapted into a shadow puppet play by a group from Toronto, each piece tells the story of a beloved cartoon character being horribly massacred in some way. When I composed them, I asked each ensemble member whom their favourite cartoon character was and in a bid of top tier trolling, I turned it around on them and let my dark humour run wild.

Also, Alouette Meets Her Maker, has been championed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir and their new artistic director on their digital platform.

This is in addition to the short film projects I’ve done (View past posts below), and one or two we’re waiting on coming to fruition.

I’m absolutely grateful for this, especially since life has temporarily pulled me away from being able to do punishingly long days of composing. I have a pair of choral pieces I’m working on simultaneously, almost always a bad move for me, and I’m hoping to have them done for the fall.


On The Beach At Night Alone

I’m happy to see that my colleagues in the choral community are still able to make music happen despite all the necessary restrictions caused by Covid-19. Many of us have listened to the town hall meetings with choral leaders and medical experts and while there is a fair bit of nuance to tease out, a 1-2 year moratorium on singing together for the vast majority of us seems to be the order of the day.

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In response to this, instead of wallowing in doom and gloom, the choral community has redoubled its efforts. Virtual choir projects are popping up all over the internet; instead of singers gathering in a space to sing together, they sing their parts into a digital device before they are assembled into a cohesive whole for performance. I’m really happy to finally be playing my part: I just finished writing a setting of the Walt Whitman poem, On The Beach At Night Alone, commissioned by The Vox Humana Chamber Choira choral piece written specifically for Virtual Choir.

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I wrote the piece so that it highlights the strengths of Virtual Choir and glosses over some of the disadvantages. The biggest one being, and a glaringly obvious one, the difficulty in singing together as a cohesive whole. You’re not standing next to your fellow singers so you can’t quite match vowels and pitches without some cumbersome interference, not to mention the fact that you can’t make the micro adjustments to your pulse and rhythm necessary to staying together timing-wise. So I wrote a piece that allowed for the vast majority of the choral parts to be sung independently – whether they be a hundred voices, or a thousand.

That’s not all that makes this project unique and timely during this period of isolation from one another. You see, there is going to be a call for participation from the world wide artistic community. Singers from all over the world will soon be invited to participate by lending their voices, and the wider artistic community will be called on to submit snapshots and video of life under Covid-19.

I’m really excited about this project coming together. More news is coming – notably the portal on the Vox Humana webpage that allows you to participate!

See (And hear you, I hope) soon!

“Tramp Cleans Up” A Short Film

I’ve not been dormant – just working on multitudes of things! Here’s a piece of fruit to tide you over while you wait for the next one.

I wrote a film score for a short film manifested by Kale Beaudry, one of my prime collaborators in the production of the music video for my string quartet, Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake.

This short is very much inspired by the silent film era. Kale, knowing my interest in early jazz music and stride piano, had me hooked pretty easily.

Enjoy!

Alouette In The Oak Bay News

A review of Vox Humana’s performance in the Okanagan gushed about the choir and also gave my recent work a thumbs up!

Certainly the most entertaining piece was by Chris Sivak – Alouette Meets Her Maker – in which the choir produces sounds associated with the decommissioned satellite of the 1970s. The imagination of the composer produces a sequel to the decommissioning after 10 years – with an unexpected reboot after 30 years. There is radio chatter, buzzing, blips and bleeps, all ending with a ‘Whoosh!’ which marked the final destruction of the circuits.

Linked For Posterity

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.

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.