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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klĭn’ĭk: Bexley High School, OH

Here is a paradox:

“How much do you have to give to sing really well?”

Everything.

“Think carefully now… if you give everything to sing well, how much do you end up with as a result?”

Everything.

This is the ultimate and blesséd paradox of choral singing I was reminded of during my time with the students and staff of Bexley High School.  I usually walk into clinics hopeful of some sort of weird magic to happen in the hearts of everyone, but when it happens like a joyful flood, it transfixes and holds… every smile, every hug, every word, every sound that comes forth is with the purpose to build, to create, to support.  Is this possible with teenagers?  With anyone, these days?  I guess so, and I got the unbelievable honor to share and be immersed in it.

I met Amy Blosser a couple years ago in the Walton booth at an American Choral Directors Association convention.  They happened to bring a piece of mine called “the Sweetheart of the Sun” on tour with them to Europe and it had been a special and meaningful piece for the the students.  (by the way, this is humbling to hear as a composer.  I will always trade tears for cheers in a choral experience)  We talked and talked through the possibility to work together on a commission and then unite that with a visit to the school to be with the students.

I decided on a text by my beloved friend Robert Bode (DCA at UMKC), who is currently the Hammerstein to my Rogers, called “Healing Heart.”  Amy and I talked about the Vocal Ensemble, who it was written for and I wanted to write them something completely unique, something vulnerable, something tough.  …and out it came.

When they performed it the first time for me, I cried.  So… this usually happens on the second day, not the first moment!  From the first sound from these beautiful faces, these miraculous hearts were opened to me.  I felt lucky to even share the air with these people.  Their eyes were something else.

I want to highlight two people.  Amy Blosser (director) is a wonderful choral musician and singer.  Her students respect and revere her and their singing reflects her warmth and intent.  More importantly, she is a wonderful and caring human who has dedicated herself to the divine choral cause and selflessly gives major time to America’s national choral association.  I am blessed to call her friend.

Amy Blosser

Casey Cook

I also want to mention my love for Bexley’s accompanist Casey Cook.  It is truly a rare thing to meet a pianist who can read minds.  They are here and there, but this woman is a bit of a magician.  When a conductor meets these wonderful musicians, it’s hard to not to want them around all the time for everything.  Mind readers, and they always (always!) save you and make you look amazing.  I know Amy would agree.  And! I got the chance to single Casey out and embarrass her in front of the student’s parents, who gave her the thanks she well deserves and will always deserve.

In the end, I got the chance to work with choirs of all ages, including the beautiful 8th grade choir directed by Sue Wiechart White (I’d like to congratulate this wonderful woman on an amazing and splendid career of service.  This is her final year.  It was my honor to meet her.)  From the Men’s and Women’s Glee, the Women’s Choir, to the Symphonic Choir, every group was filled with a spirit that is hard to describe, hard to capture, hard to say thank you properly.

Let me mention the community as well… from the audience at the concert, to the celebration at the Horn family home, I felt loved and accepted as a friend.

Finally, I want to share my thanks to the Vocal Ensemble and their work on this new piece which will receive a full premiere at the Central ACDA convention on March 9th, but more importantly for entering into a space with me that one cannot enter without being changed…without transfiguring (at least a little).  I connected in a special way to a few students in particular and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Thanks for talking to me, for letting me in.  Remember what I said to you, remember my eyes, remember my heart.  Thank you for giving everything …and getting in return… everything.

________________

In the end, I really do know what is important.  It isn’t about my music.  It never will be.  If it is, someone punch me in the face.

It is about eyes shining.  It is about hearts crying.  It is about hugging and knowing what it means to love.

Choral Arts and “Sing in Dark Times”

This last weekend brought with it a concert by Choral Arts in Seattle called:

Against Forgetting: A Concert for Remembrance for Victims of the Holocaust.

What a program it was.

In case you are unfamiliar with Choral Arts, they are a Seattle-based ensemble of approximately thirty singers dedicated to its mission: To inspire, educate, and enrich its community through the transformational power of great choral music performed at the highest artistic level.  Initially started by Dr. Richard Sparks (now Professor of Music at the University of North Texas) in 1993, the group is now conducted by Dr. Robert Bode, is the Raymond R. Neevel/Missouri Professor of Choral Music and Director of Choral Activities at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  That’s a mouthful.  Through the years this group has been excellent, continues to be, and in some ways has grown into something more and exciting, especially with their recent CD Release, Mornings Like This, which is truly a special choral CD.

Robert Bode, photo by Danielle Barnum

Robert Bode showed his innovative nature in this particular program of Remembrance for Victims of the Holocaust, partly by programming virtually no music specifically about the Holocaust.  In fact there ended up being only one, my Sing in Dark Times.  Though this was the case, either through tangential means or very choice readings, one could not help but live in a space where swirled images, words, and memories of this terrible event.  Primary readings were taken from Surviving Auschwitz by Primo Levi and read by one of the finest dramatic actors in the Seattle area, David Pichette.    These spoke primarily to select moments of a Jew’s experience being sent to Auschwitz when things were at their worst.

The concert began with Donal Grantham’s We Remember Them, composed in 2001 commemorating the victims of the 1966 clock-tower shootings at the University of Texas.  It moved quickly to Have You Ever Heard Them Breathe a Word? by Giselle Wyers.  The text for this new piece was actually the winner of Choral Art’s “Finding Your Voice” poetry contest for students in area schools.  It was a meaningful setting of a delightful poem.

The Choral Concerto in Memory of Alexander Yurlov, composed by Georgy Sviridov in 1973, followed and packed an emotional punch.  Interspersed where readings from the Levi text.  This Sviridov work is a set of three pieces for Wordless Chorus (Lament, The Parting, Chorale) and through use of extreme dynamics and ranges brings the listener really ‘to the brink.’  I can’t say enough about how well the synthesis between these pieces and the readings worked.  Powerful.

Two movements from Howell’s Requiem (3 and 5) were wrapped around the Intermission, which created a continuity through the break.  Again, another selection that keeps one in that special place of remembrance and highly effective.

from The Hateful Crime

Sing in Dark Times by me, was the bulk of the second half, with three movements (balancing the Sviridov in a way I think).  This piece (the first of many to come in the Richard Sparks Commissioning Project) was, as mentioned, the only piece about the Holocaust.  The first movement The Hateful Crime is a very dramatic work with text taken from the poem The Death of Peace by Nobel Prize winning doctor Sir Ronald Ross.  Rather than being specific to the Holocaust, this text was meant as a ‘set-up’ for the second piece.  It talks about evil in a broad and metaphysical fashion, though exposing it as something quite specific (paradoxical….sort of).  Pigtail, (to a poem by the same name by Tadeusz Rozewicz) the middle movement, was really the meat of the piece and I think it was quite successful in transporting the audience to a particular vision.  It centers on a pile of hair taken from women who were taken into the gas chambers for execution.  This horror is only multiplied by the sight of a single pigtail with a ribbon in the midst of clouds of hair.  The music gives the feeling that this moment is “frozen in time” as a photograph, with a repetitive piano underlying an emotive soprano soloist.  The choir can only comment on this barbarity with a single shocking word, “No.” Over and over again, “No!”  One can only ask the question “What now?” after a vision like this.  We cannot turn back time.  We cannot undo.  A quote by Bertolt Brecht tries to answer this question saying:  “In the dark times, will there also be singing?  Yes, there will also be singing.  About the dark times.” This third movement, Yes, focuses just on that, the word “Yes,” in contrast to the horrible “No” of the second movement.

Following this heavy, heavy drama was a bit of programming genius I think, with a heartfelt mvt 3 from Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein.  The simplicity and warmth of the lines contained such a depth in this moment, closing with the words, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Closing the program was a moving When All Is Done, originally composed by Northwest composer John Muehleisen in 2008 for the University of Wyoming, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard (the victim of a notorious hate crime).  With text by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, it speaks to hope.  Hope we need when things are dark, or wrong.

Choral Arts is quickly approaching their 20th Anniversary season, and in my opinion are putting together some amazing performances, concerts and recordings.  This is an ensemble that sounds so, so, so very good.  And it is a great blessing to be in any way involved with them.