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.

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On Why Peter Grimes Is Worth Every Note

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I am slightly obsessed with the score for Benji Britten’s Peter Grimes. It does a great many of the things that I wish all opera could do but stubbornly refuses to or can’t. Luckily for all of us, we have an upcoming opportunity to experience a concert performance by The Vancouver Symphony.

I must confess, I don’t actually consider myself an opera fan. It’s a genre that fills me with conflict. When it’s good, it’s the most amazing thing in the world. When it’s bad, it’s melodramatic and painful to sit through. Or worse. It’s also a possibility that my love and hate vacillations put me firmly on the opera fan spectrum. Most of them are similarly tortured by how good it can be and how difficult it is to get there.

Peter Grimes is a score that captures me so easily that I am rarely even tempted to escape its clutches. As far as opera goes, I consider it to be quite accessible. If you’re new to opera, you should be prepared to have your boundaries challenged as the music and subject matter are quite heavy. But there’s also a lot about it that makes it accessible to opera neophytes. A warning to readers: some plot spoilers follow.

The music is a very hooky.

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Opera always strives for melody but it doesn’t always care about hooks. I assure you that, as confident as I am about the fact that I mostly wear pants, I am equally confident that melodies and hooks are very different. A melody is a sequence of musical notes that has some kind of internal logic to it that satisfies in some way. A hook can also be that, but it can also be a subsection of a melody or barely even a melody at all.

The chorus of Ke$ha’s, “tik tok” is a hook – but is it a melody? Barely. If it weren’t for the auto-tune you probably wouldn’t even realize she was mostly only singing one note.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer has arguably one of the great melodic gifts in rock music – and a great gift for hooks as well. It’s very much on display in the iconic, “Buddy Holly”.

Samuel Barber wrote a behemoth hook delivery when he wrote the Adagio of his string quartet. But his music is peppered with hooks. A famous passage about two and a half minutes in to his violin concerto (Played here by Isaac Stern) is a pile driver to the nucleus of our listening apparatus.

Peter Grimes is full of hooks: the four interludes that interpolate the whole work; the a-cappella duet after the opening court scene; Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria; the recitative patter in the pub scene; the mob scene; Mrs. Sedley’s chromatic aspersions; and who could forget “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing”?

The story and characters are plausible.

Storyline.gifEarly opera is almost obliquely about gods and goddesses god-ing and goddess-ing. So much so that when Mozart burst forth with operas about the servant class snarkily making their masters look like fools it caused a bit of a scandal. However an element of the fantastical persisted with Mozart’s operas. People didn’t really behave like you would expect people to behave and situations that arose didn’t really run their course in a believable way.

This break with reality works on the opera stage because the whole medium is a bit fantastical. However, it’s a little jarring to modern listeners who have been raised on film. This modern audience can be quite critical of the believability of their fiction and when they bring that savvy to the concert hall it can make a connection to the music more challenging. I can certainly sympathize. I mean, how many times have you confused a close family member with a complete stranger because they wore a different hat? Many of Mozart’s operas rely on the audience’s ability to accept a complete lack of realism at the drop of a hat in order to move the story forward.

This just isn’t so with Peter Grimes. The story stands on it’s own as far as believability and depth (#NoSpoilers)

It takes full advantage of opera’s unique story telling powers

Instead of providing a tableau of songs for us to absorb, the opera takes advantage of the medium itself to help tell the story in ways other mediums couldn’t easily duplicate. Or if they did, they would look silly; like a goose wearing a neck tie, or a trombonist without a case of beer in their hand.

In the first act, when we’re fresh off hearing Britten’s instrumental storm interlude, we’re treated to the residents of the Burrough taking shelter from the storm in a local tavern. Every time a character comes in the door, we hear the storm music from the interlude rage until the door slams shut. If this were film, we would have a CGI hurricane bellowing through the door but as this opera – the orchestra BECOMES the storm.

Also in the tavern scene is Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria in-which we get a glimpse of Peter’s internal turmoil. The music is one of the most moving passages in the whole opera. It’s a very unique piece of music that features an Eflat pedal tone that hovers in the air for what feels like just long enough before dropping. When the piece is over, the other patrons of the tavern admonish him for being drunk and Auntie’s Nieces sing that his song is “sour” on the same pedal tone featured in the aria. We, the audience, hear Peter’s torture but the townsfolk are hearing a man ranting and raving like a lunatic.

Later, when the residents of the Burrough form a posse to hunt down Peter, the curtain comes down on the them calling his name in one of the loudest fortissimo’s in all of opera. When we eventually meet up again with Peter on the beach, he’s gone completely mad. The sounds of the posse can be heard off stage but the harmony is altered and the dynamic much more subdued. The posse could be far away, or it could be a reflection of Peter losing his grip with his reality.

If you’re reading this, it’s in a language you understand.

englishThis is actually a bigger deal than you think, but if the vast majority of opera is in a language other than your native tongue than it’s no wonder you wouldn’t connect with it. There’s something about the connection of meaning to sound as it leaves someone’s mouth that makes it more special to us. And if it weren’t special, why would we bother with singing at all? To their credit, performance organizations try to overcome this hurdle with the addition of a live textual translation, but it’s not the same.

The simple act of looking away from the stage to figure out what’s going on jars you back into reality – putting you back in a concert hall instead of the music on stage. They’re helping us understand what going on but they’re not always helping us connect to the voice of that person in that moment. The only way around the problem is to know the language and be there in the moment. And we really ARE talking about a moment here, in the span of time it takes you to look up and comprehend a translation, you’re gone. It’s a frustrating problem that doesn’t really have a simple solution.

The Vancouver Symphony performs a the music from Peter Grimes on Saturday, June 9th and 11th at 8pm at the Orpheum Theatre. I’ll be in the second row.

 

 

 

On The Marriage Of Figaro, Dead Man Walking, And Tanya Tagaq At The Vancouver Opera Festival

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Today is the last day of the Vancouver Opera Festival’s inaugural run and I am happy to say that I was succesfully woo’d by a whole bunch of great music. Mission accomplished my friends! In a mean fit of musical acrobatics, I somehow managed to give the star production of the festival, Verdi’s Otello, a wide berth and focus on some of the other gems surrounding it. It was partly a matter of convenience, but mostly a matter of personal taste – more on that another time.

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Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro is usually hailed by opera buffs as one of the best – if not THE best – and while I disagree with them on almost every point about their art (I can’t stand Wagner, can hardly tolerate Verdi, and don’t have the stamina for eight curtain calls) I actually agree with them on this one. From the last dozen or so bars of the overture to the ensemble number in the finale I’m a gurgling mess of tears and blubbering.

It could be something to do with the pacing and hookiness of it, which is probably on the right track to my heart, but it also might just be that Mozart’s writing makes opera singers sound their best. How it does this, I have only my own rambling conjecture but I find myself really getting into the voice when I listen to Mozart. That is to say, I start thinking about the subtle colours of the opera voice, which ones I like, and which ones I don’t and think this is because the composer is presenting them in an uncluttered way. Part of it could be that Mozart’s orchestra was quite a bit smaller than what came later – a bigger orchestra will pump out more sound; even just sitting there, noisily turning pages, swapping out mutes, and mumbling incoherently – so the singers have a greater dynamic range to work in.

He also lives less in the extreme registers of the human voice which means things just ‘fit’ better: a singer is more restricted in how they do things when they’re singing a really high or low note. His mission might be his love for the voice and his success would be how well he shares it with people who don’t “get it” right away – which could be the ultimate lesson for composers everywhere.

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It pains me to say that I was less impressed by Dead Man Walking – which puts me at odds with just about everybody who saw it. The subject matter has huge depth and relevance – not to mention some gorgeous staging and an exquisite ensemble number in the first act. But it suffers from a common contemporary opera malady: at no point does anybody on stage ever sing something resembling a song. Instead, the voices live in a state of recitative which feels like vocal purgatory to me. Because of this, the score is pregnant and waiting to burst but never really gets the opportunity to. This is a phenomenon that others have remarked on (Most notably, John Corigliano when discussing his approach for his own opera, Ghosts Of Versailles) so it’s not like this score owns the problem completely. I feel like contemporary music, in it’s haste to be outside the box, has rejected this fundamental building block of music, the song, without realizing how that’s like making an apple pie and leaving out the crust.

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Tanya Tagaq is a true treasure and I will never forget her performance at The Vogue Theater – definitely one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Her vocal practice, based on Inuk throat singing, has an extremely wide palette of colour. At her most guttural, she is deep and eldritch but she also soars high, pristine, and clean like a folk singer. Backed by Jesse Zubot on violin, Jean Martin on percussion, and a fabulous pick-up choir they took us on a dark ride that touched on environmental destruction and Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women (The latter culminating in a haunting cover of Nirvana’s Rape Me that chills to the bone).

The set was largely improvised and really brought home for me how good improvised music can be when it’s at it’s best. Improvisers whom I love and respect have talked about improvisation as a journey with a goal of bringing an audience along for the ride. Tanya addressed this at the beginning of the show by asking us to leave our phones alone. She half joked that she was of a generation that did things to do them rather than show the internet that you did them; the point sort of being that instagramming a live performance is as useful as filming a painting. Everything you want to capture (ie. being there) is lost because disengaging from the performance to play with your phone effectively removes you from the audience (Where did you go?).

I’m really happy I got to attend the few shows that I did and look forward to more next year!

On Doo-Wop, The Scourge Of Robots and Beyonce, and The Anacrusis

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Doo-wop is a fascinating little inlet of American Music that was sort of absorbed and overcome by the popularity of guitar driven music. When Doo-wop was at its populist peak the most popular instrument wasn’t the guitar, it was the saxophone. If you go back to old recordings you’ll find that guitar solos are quite rare – the saxophone is usually the one stealing the limelight. But it didn’t take long for guitar to become the center of North American music and it’s only recently that it’s finally being displaced by robots and Beyonce.

The anacrusis is a forty dollar word for, “the pickup” which is a sixteen cent word for a note that precedes and leads into the first downbeat of a phrase (It’s the and of, “….and go!”). They’re everywhere. In big band music, the drummer plays a very important anacrusis in setting up big shots with a sharp crack (a rimshot) on their snare drum; the iconic “Da-da-da-DUMMMMM!” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has THREE NOTES in its anacrusis; and the gasp of the audience before their roar when an event flies off the rails is also an anacrusis of sorts.

In Doo-wop, you’ll somtimes hear a voluminous, “Yeah” from the bass singer that sounds like a herd of cattle passing a bicycle. This is Doo-wop’s own special anacrusis, and the inspiration for this blog post. In the example below – a famous and filthy song – you can hear a prolific example at 0:45

At 2:12 in this famous recording by the Monotones we have a unique take on the phenomenon that sounds more like a llama hurtling itself through an open window:

I’d love to have an explanation for where this phenomenon comes from but it seems to be one of those unexplained little quirks of the genre. The art form clearly has a cappella origins; perhaps with the addition of instruments, the bass singer’s duties were becoming more and more overtaken by their instrumental counterparts and the, “YEAH” was a vocal uprising in the unseen battle of the basses. In rehearsals leading up to the BIG SHOW, the singer would be quietly stewing, planning his attack, only to unleash a hellish fury in performance that left the audience and performers indifferent in the face of a looming saxophone solo.

 

 

 

Why Write When You Can Dance?

imagen_principal“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is a deft phrase meant to evoke the futility in writing about music but more often retaliate against a critic who doesn’t like the sounds we make. The implication being, of course, that conveying the essence of music through words is as futile as conveying the essence of architecture through dance. For instance, what does Justin Timberlake really mean when he declares his intent to, “bring sexy back”? Could the song really be about where his sexy has gone and how we might form a committee to help bring it back? I argue that, much like a forty pound sword, the pen is only as mighty as the skill of the wielder allows.

Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music… is a really stupid thing to want to do”. Opinions vary, but somewhere between some and many musicians view music journalism in a negative light. Frank Zappa once opined that rock (music) journalism was, “People who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read“. It’s likely due to an unavoidable adversarial relationship between the press and whatever they’re writing about as they aren’t bound to only write praise. In fact, they will often write noxiously critical things which leaves a crack under the door for resentment creep.

There also exists an exaltation of music that is somehow threatened by daring to try and capture it with words. For many of us, music is vapour; it is by its very nature, effusive. Writing about it somehow either misses the whole point or robs it of what makes it special. First of all, music doesn’t get robbed; musicians do. Second of all, most human beings are capable of having a very intense emotional connection to what they listen to. It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, someone from among us would have something profound to say about it.

Someone with a pen and a love of music, is a worthwhile ally to music creators. In fact, I would encourage all my fellow music creators to become their own best allies, come out with their pen swinging, and tell us about WHAT they do, WHY the do it, and WHEN it’s happening. It’s a lesson I’ve slowly been learning about my own creativity – YOU NEED TO TELL PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO AND WHY YOU DO IT. Otherwise, how will they know?

In Defense All Things Swing

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When I was about half of whatever my current age is, I spent a lot of time listening to some very loud music. I liked my power chords chunky, my singers screamy, and my drummers bleeding from the forehead. Not much has changed; the exception being I now attend a larger variety of concerts compared to my younger self. I don’t think this is unique to me. My peers and I all grew up with their own music and are perpetually hungry for new experience. As we grow, so do our tastes. We are now regular attendees at a variety of venues because we find something memorable at each of them that can’t easily be encapsulated by only one experience.

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If you were to conjecture that I’ve become slightly more crotchety since I’ve reached the age of whatever my current age is, you’d be partially right. Though I do enjoy going to loud music concerts once in a while, I’ve come to despise the ritual of shouting, “WHAT?!”, “HEY!!”, or “WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON TAP?!” in nearly every attempt at conversation in these venues. It’s not necessarily that the music is TOO LOUD; the music is exactly as LOUD as it’s supposed to be. Part of the aesthetic of LOUD music is that it is supposed to be LOUD enough to close off all other aural avenues and offer only one path towards the stage and hopefully a memorable experience. This is a good thing. We, the audience, demand a LOUD presence on our stage and in our earbuds because it shuts down distraction and allows us to appreciate the full girth of the audio spectrum plumbing our listening orifices. This is wonderful – yet I can’t help but wish there was a space for a conversation to be had.

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This desire for LOUD extends to all styles of western music. This desire is present everywhere from the types of instruments musicians play to how we process our music for consumption. It began with stringed instruments switched from gut strings to wound metal. Eventually, we started plugging them into amplifiers as loud as a jet engine. Contemporary recording practices in all styles of music also began employing tricks to be MORE LOUD. If you load a recently recorded waveform for pretty much any piece of music of any style into some kind of audio software and look at the LOUDEST point in the music you will find a nearly perfect box where someone chopped off the audio peaks. By removing the few errant peaks at this loud passage, that are essentially a millisecond in duration, you’re able to uniformly bring the whole recording up in volume.

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Classical music has many baffling concert rituals. Notably among them is the one wherein the audience has a tacit agreement to not make any noise while the music is playing so as to better appreciate it for what it is. And, like with LOUD music, that’s a good thing! The point is not to shut down communication but to offer a unique space to give music the full breadth of our attention – just for a few hours – before we shuffle back to a world of diverse and constant stimuli. I am very hot and cold when it comes to the classical music listening experience. On one hand, I love that we have a space to allow music to be the main focus but I despise that this comes at the cost of behaving like human beings. It doesn’t feel natural to hold back my praise for the performance until the end of four movements. I sometimes yearn to have the courage to be more like the scientist who was famously ejected from a concert hall for trying to crowd surf through Handel’s Messiah.

I love that at a jazz concert, if someone plays something you like, you can whoop and clap your approval. It feels natural. It feels organic. It feels human. However, serious jazz listening also goes the way of classical music in that the ritual begins to take over the human experience: you play the head, you solo, clapping only happens after solos, and then you play the head again. This is a bit disappointing to me when it seems so obvious that the music is so obviously at its best when it’s adventurous, wild, and dangerous. But again, I realize that for what we sacrifice in our experience we also gain a lot. I am thankful that I have a space to go to that is so listening focused yet I somehow crave compromise.

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I started listening to jazz when I was in music school but I started getting into swing music in a big way about four or five years ago through the local swing dance scene. Swing dancing hooked me big time. This was a way of appreciating the concert experience in a way that I had not experienced before. I had always sort of danced but this style of dance was offering a unique framework for the improvisation to be a communal improvisatory project between two people instead of the solitary one I’d experienced up to this point. This mirrors the philosophy of the playing as well. Improvisation exists in all styles of music all around the world but relatively few have a paradigm of an improvising collective. In Jazz, you aren’t just playing a solo to be the star – you’re listening to everybody else in the band and trying to go somewhere together. In the dance, instead of being the star of your own dance epic, you’re also interacting with another human being with a personality, preferences, and flailing limbs.

I brought with me to these swing dances my concert hall listening experiences. I found that when I had danced myself to exhaustion I could be reinvigorated by taking a break and simply listening to what somebody was playing; having a hall of people swinging the daylights out of each other is very motivating for an improviser and you can hear it in their playing. I’ve picked out some surprisingly touching moments coming from the horns on those stages. I also found that if I wanted to I could have a conversation with my peers without having to shout over the bedlam in the hall. The music is LOUD enough for what it needs to be. This resulted in me still having the use of my vocal chords the next day and will probably save my hearing for my forthcoming old age. At these concerts I am free to dance madly, shout obscenely, listen intently, or ignore completely. I still go to the symphony and the opera. And my heart still belongs to the halls I flailed around in when I had a mohawk and wore spikes on my jacket. But I am thankful to have also discovered a space that meets my needs with such elegant simplicity. Swing it!

Jocelyn Morlock’s “Exaudi”

This Friday, the Laudate Singers might very well be premiering a piece of own (Don’t worry – they are). However, I’m at least wise enough to know when I’m in the presence of something magical and I feel obliged to hold up a big sign to let you all know that this concert is going to be all about Jocelyn Morlock’s Exaudi.

Exaudi was commissioned by Vancouver’s musica intima vocal ensemble in 2004 and it has gone on to be performed very widely and even been nominated for a Juno award in 2011. Scored for vocal ensemble and cello, it’s an extremely powerful statement of rising tension and catharsis. The composer says, “I wrote it after my grandmother had died so I wanted it to be in memory of her. In a weird way it’s a little bit about her life. Her husband died very young – young enough that she didn’t know what to do – so she tried to throw herself into the grave with him. It’s one of those stories your family tells you and you remember it forever”.

The first section of the piece begins with ritualized incantations from the choir that are soon joined by the cello. The opening figure from the cello seems to mimic what occurs in the choral parts but quickly fancies itself another foil. Once the opening elegy peters out, taking the cello with it, the women’s voices add a new urgency to the mix. The piece throttles up until the air is sundered with our largest sonority yet – completely unlike any other thing until now – and it’s at this point that the cello rejoins us by scraping the sky above the choir before tipping into the bedlam below.

The closing section draws us back from the earlier horror and more to a place of acceptance and peace. “She was stuck where she was but gradually became better” says Jocelyn about her grandmother. “As she became much older, the idea of death became very peaceful to her – very calming”. In these closing measures, the sopranos are invisibly roused by sweet melodic turns from the cello; an unmistakable mini tone-poem painting a choir of angels; and the piece closes on a prayer for eternal rest.

 

I Guarantee That This Is The Best Performance Of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles

You really can’t help but love how the world’s most amazing wind quintet, Carion incorporates movement and choreography into this performance of the master Ligeti’s famous Six Bagatelles.

Watching it, you realize that it’s not just a novelty but a brilliant guide through the form and structure of the piece. The ensemble uses movement and drama, not JUST as a tinge of something fun, but as a way of highlighting what’s happening in the piece. It’s stunning!

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Happy Birthday Arvo Pärt

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What could be a better way to celebrate the esteemed Estonian’s birthday than a listen to one of his most mystical works?

My Heart’s In The Highlands is a piece for alto voice and organ. What strikes me most, besides the impossible voice in the recording below, is the impossible scale of the vocal line. It’s almost like there are two timescales in play. The voice almost moves in slow motion when compared to the accompaniment figures and if you let yourself get caught by it I worry that you might be irreparably wounded.

It’s also an excellent study in the composer’s tintinnabuli style that catapulted him to fame (Fur Alina for solo piano is said to be his first work in the style). Essentially – with tintinnabulation – the music can almost always be simplified to two voices. Paul Hillier, arguably the world’s leading authority on the composer’s works, proposed referring to them as the T-voice and the M-voice. The T-voice always moves in stepwise motion and the m-voice in arpeggiated figures.

In My Heart’s In The Highlands, the composer has given the vocal soloist the M-voice while the organ plays an ornamented version of the T-voice.

Give it a listen!

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