Unearthing EWB – Dawn

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

The summer before I moved to Seattle in 2007 I decided to send a couple pieces to several choirs in the Northwest region, including choirs like Choral Arts, Opus7, and The Esoterics.  Now as most composers may tell you this generally is a bit of a gamble and often a waste, for conductors of fine ensembles are inundated with manuscripts from composers trying to find performances.  Most often, the scores sit on the conductor’s piano, glanced at, untouched, or skimmed and filed (maybe even in file 13).  So I knew this, but I took it to be an opportunity at minimum to get my name in the ear of these fine choirs and their conductors.

At the time, Choral Arts was transitioning between two fantastic conductors, Dr. Richard Sparks (currently at University of North-Texas) and Dr. Robert Bode (conservatory at University of Missouri, Kansas City).  My scores were of secondary importance to a choir during an important transition and they could have been lost in the shuffle, but somehow they made it Robert’s box and waited patiently for his perusal.

Richard Sparks, Robert Bode, Eric Barnum

I got a call in August of 2008 from Robert, who I hadn’t met, and we hit it off immediately.  He had a proposition (he wouldn’t say it was risky, but I would! and am still grateful to this day), for me to compose a short piece for their upcoming “Mornings Like This” album, set to a poem written by him.  I instantly said yes without even pondering.  It was an honor to be asked, but to be nearly guaranteed a spot on a professional recording on a label like Gothic is truly a gift for a young composer.  But, the caveat was he needed it quick.  How quick?  Lets just say quick.  He sent the poem on a Friday.

I sent the piece to him on Sunday afternoon.

I don’t mention this to boast about how quick I can compose a piece, but to share my deep belief in the inspirational quality of Robert’s poetry.  This was our first collaboration and we have done many others over recent years i.e. Healing Heart, Carol of the Angels, Conflagration.  Each time feels as though I am transcribing music already present in the text, not necessarily adding anything special of my own.  He and Thomas Hood (1799-1845) seem to be the poets most resonant to my heart.

In 2010, Dawn was chosen for one of Conspirare’s fantastic Carillon concerts by Craig Hella Johnson.  Craig and I subsequently published it through his series with G. Schirmer.  You can find it to order:  (HL.50490262)

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

From the door’s soft opening
And the day’s first sigh,
Filling the room,
I see before me
A life of doors,
One opening on another,
Doors upon doors,
And sighs upon sighs,
Rising in a tide of mornings,
Rising, until that final sigh,
And the last morning,
And the last holy breath,
Whispering “this…”

The instant I read the poem I thought Scandanavia.  Not sure why, and I usually don’t second guess my instincts.  So I attacked the poem with composers like Alfvén and Stenhammar as my guides.  I wanted to capture both the natural daylight breaking over the horizon, but also the existential idea a new day represents.  Though the existential element is more obvious in the text, I thought I could amplify it yet further by spending most of my time focusing on the light breaking forth idea.

I tried to do this in a couple of ways.  Immediately comes the obvious technique of starting with few voices and adding parts individually to create more and more color, culminating in the rich sonority of an F major chord (which I sometimes think of as the color blue).  The idea of light gradually coming is self-evident in the text “doors upon doors, sighs upon sighs”.  I choose to use this section of text as a spring board into the climax, not only with a repeating rising vocal line transferred from part to part, but also with harmonic tensions created from some unresolved suspensions.  All this resolves in a surprising minor climax, not major.  I think this gives the glory of each dawn a sense not of just joy, but also of mystery and longing.

The end of the piece essentially is an extension of an aleatoric technique I use from time to time.  In this particular piece the word “this” is repeated over and over again, overlapping in a cluster creating the imagery of a light.  Meanwhile a wavelike repeating figure is sung in the lower voices.  In total, one should get the feeling of light reflecting off the gentle waves of a body of water as the sun rises slowly above the horizon.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

I haven’t seen too many sunrises, to be honest.  Sunsets have been easier for a night-owl.  Sunrises are glorious things though when you do the work to get up early enough.  It always seems to be worth it ….maybe I should do it more often.  Dawn brings with it possibility.  A newness.  A cleanliness.  The return of the sun has a fresh warmth too it as we shield our eyes from the bright light.

Robert focuses particularly on the aspect of renewal and the possibilities a novel day always presents.  All things are a mystery as you look ahead, but with the rising sun, a special feeling often fills your heart:  hope.  It seems like this poem is a perfect answer to the famous Thomas Hardy poem of hope: Song of Hope.

O sweet To-morrow! –
After to-day
There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for a gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
Dimmed by no gray –
No gray!

While the winds wing us
Sighs from The Gone,
Nearer to dawn
Minute-beats bring us;
When there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
Further anon –
Anon!

Doff the black token,
Don the red shoon,
Right and retune
Viol-strings broken;
Null the words spoken
In speeches of rueing,
The night cloud is hueing,
To-morrow shines soon –
Shines soon!

The piece Dawn is the tomorrow Hardy speaks about.  It is today!  Today is here and with it brings something new with its unpredictable prism of possibilities.  Dawn also hints that this gift will continue if you choose it.  Hope is born anew each morning.  Mercies are new every morning, if we look to the light.  And when the light rises, it shines light on blessings all around us.

We travelers, walking toward the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessing now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

– Wendell Berry

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One thought on “Unearthing EWB – Dawn

  1. So when you handed out my choral piece to the choir, you said jokingly “it’s like I wrote this.” I had no idea what you meant until I read this blog (specifically concerning the ending aleatoric section). I loved getting an insight into your compositional mind, however, and I hope it’s not too similiar!

    -N

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