Interplay 2021: Starlight, Star Bright

Obligatory selfie

One of the worst feelings in the world for a composer is when you take a risk on a new piece and watch it bomb in the first rehearsal because of a minor oversight.

And slightly worse than that is when something you never thought in a million years would pose any difficulty or complication turns out to be incredibly difficult and complicated.

And then, ever so slightly worse than that is when you’re driving down the highway to catch a ferry to a choir workshop in the middle of a freak weather event and the road floods behind you cutting off your way home. Don’t worry, I got home okay; late, but okay.

I’ve had my fair share of traumatic moments of discovery at a first rehearsal, which is why I’m always grateful for The Vancouver Chamber Choir’s Interplay workshops. These workshops are easily the best place to try out new ideas without the pressure of a catastrophic failure that lasts for the complete performance cycle of a new work.

In fact, in direct contrast to live performance, failures in a workshop environment are the best part about participating because they represent the opportunity to learn and grow without having to fail in front of an audience. The choir isn’t committed to  performance of the works being read so if some aspect of the piece doesn’t work the choir moves on and the composer either fixes it or tosses it aside. The more catastrophic the failure, the better I say!

I get so much out of these workshops. Growing as a composer can be a very painful process. They’re at a huge disadvantage because the cycle of learning (The start of the attempt to the actualization of the attempt) is so incredibly long. Performance organizations plan their seasons out a year in advance, at least. That means it can easily take a year before you hear the first note in a rehearsal – and that’s if you’re lucky. By shortening the amount of time between attempt and actualization, the VCC speeds up the learning cycle for the composer and contributes enormously to their growth.

Now about that new piece…

Starlight, Star Bright is a new work of mine that was conceived for treble chorus and quickly adapted for mixed choir in a flurry of deadline squashing and early morning bouts of caffeine. 

In the piece, the choir uses a simple textural twist to paint a sonic representation of shooting stars lighting up the sky. I definitely feel that, with this piece and my last one, that I’ve found a creative path for my imagination to walk that allows others to partake, as well. It’s fun to think up crazy ideas but far more satisfying when you can share them with others effectively.

Most of the writing, at its core, is in unison and I’m hoping to further simplify the way it’s written on the page to show that to the singers. It’s been a bit of a struggle. The choir IS divided into 8 parts but there are only about 4 bars of several hundred that actually have a true 8 part chord. It’s an awkward balancing act between having too little on the page to be of any practical use, and having so much that using the page is impractical.

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.

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.