Unearthing EWB: The Sounding Sea

Being from the Red River Valley, I didn’t find a myself on the shore of the ocean very much.  I actually didn’t experience any ocean until I was in college.  Since then I have been to (and in) the Pacific, Atlantic, Carribean, and North Sea.  I know now there is magic in the oceans.  They are complex, violent, peaceful, full of colors, rhythms and sounds… and life.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach–waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh

O listen to the sounding sea

O listen to the sounding sea
That beats on the remorseless shore,
O listen! for that sound will be
When our wild hearts shall beat no more.

O listen well and listen long!
For sitting folded close to me,
You could not hear a sweeter song
Than that hoarse murmur of the sea.

– George William Curtis (1824-1892)


It is interesting to firstly note that I chose this text for a commission from Iowa State University, director Dr. Jim Rodde.  I remember seeing this text, and strangely I knew immediately it was right.  Looking back, I’m not totally sure why.  These are Iowa students, and I am choosing a text about the sea….but I had this feeling (and I’ve learned to trust them).  This was shortly after I moved to Seattle, and when I sent Dr. Rodde the poem, he responded by saying something like, “wow, you must be really loving the northwest.”  Maybe true.  The Puget Sound is only a quick 7 minute drive, and I go there often.

They were chosen to perform at the National ACDA convention that year (2009), and I was fortunate that Dr. Rodde put it into an absolutely amazing program.  The students performed astonishingly well.  Sometimes groups perform at conventions like ACDA and you can almost feel an electricity in the room.  This was certainly the case, and I felt blessed to just have been there listening, but I was doubly blessed having a piece on the program.  Here is a video the performance:

(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

I normally don’t choose such short poems, especially for an a cappella piece, I guess for the reason that I’m not a huge fan of repeating text over and over again.  I do it from time to time yes, but with a text this short, to create the drama that I wanted to, there would have to be quite a bit of repetition.  This was an initial challenge, and one that I was worried about.  One way I attacked this is by using the words to create “sea sounding” elements, for example slides, whispers, and rhythms.

The Sounding Sea, original manuscript. Published with Walton Music

An interesting moment to focus on is the first time the text “for sitting folded close to me” is sung.  I wanted to capture a very particular image.  Early on in my time here in Seattle, I remember sitting on a large piece of driftwood at a beach with Danielle and staring at the sunset over Puget Sound and the Olympics.  It was chilly and I put my arm around her and pulled her close.  The alto’s sing a little slide on the word “me” that emulates that moment.  I also remember telling the Iowa State Singers about that before they took the stage in Oklahoma City.  I knew that moment (the length of the slide, what the slide was about, etc.) was a bit confusing.  But that is another magical thing about music.  They started to visualize it, to feel it happening, and then it clicked into place, and there was new life and meaning to something simple like the altos sliding up.  They were pulling in, drawing close to get warm.

This is a major goal of mine: to really try and have reasons for things, inject layers of meaning into everything.  Here is an honest statement from a composer:  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes you are just trying to get the job done.  I hope times like that are rare.  But sometimes the stars align and there is meaning everywhere.  …more wonderful meaning than you even meant to put there.  I hope this piece fits into that context.


The Sounding Sea really acts like a journey toward land from way out in the ocean, if you can imagine it.  It starts off pretty rough, with big waves, crashes and sprays.  The waves get a little smaller and your sail catches the wind.  You hear the thump of the waves hitting the hull with the stomps of the ensemble.  There is a big transition, as if your boat glides up onto the beach, and then instead of riding on the waves, you start watching them, looking at the soft rolls, listening to the ripples.  And you start sinking into the rhythm of the hoarse murmur of the sea as it comes in incessantly…indifferently.

…and there is peace.  …and you shut your eyes, and maybe the only thing you think to do is breathe and be thankful.


The Sounding Sea has received some amazing performances.  Here are two variations of very different choirs, making different sounds, choosing different things to bring forth.  It is so fun to see and hear the multifarious sounds of the sea.

University of Missouri – Columbia University Singers, conductor Dr. Paul Crabb.

The University of Houston Concert Chorale at the Choir of the World Competition in the 2009 Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, conductor Dr. Betsy Weber