Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Choral’
11 Nov

Week 183: “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Alex Patterson

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Depending on where you live, today might be Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day.

The fact that this day has so many various names is interesting to me, because it raises the question: what is this day for, exactly? The “Veterans’ Day” name suggests that we place our focus on the soldiers who have fought on our behalf in years gone by. “Armistice Day” feels more like a day to be thankful for peace, a day to hope that current wars will soon end.

Then there’s option three: “Remembrance Day.” This is the one I find most fitting. Not only because it’s called Remembrance Day where I live, but because I think the focus should really be on remembering. For me, that means remembering a few things:

  • That I’m lucky to live in an area that is not directly affected by war.
  • That people of my grandparents’ generation helped to defeat Nazism.
  • That all returning soldiers come home wounded.
  • That governments who send soldiers to war should be responsible for their care when and if they come home.
  • That soldiers aren’t the only people who die in war.
  • That nations need to do everything they can to avoid war.
  • That victory should not be confused with glory.

This last point is at the heart of Wilfred Owen’s incredible poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  If you haven’t read it, please do. Or even better, listen to Kenneth Branagh’s reading of it. It does everything a great wartime poem should do: it honours veterans, it pleads for peace, and reminds us that war is ugly. This song, brilliantly composed by Alex Patterson and beautifully performed by Concanenda, was inspired by Owen’s poem, and provides a fitting soundtrack for remembrance.

So whether your calendar shows today as Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or even just Monday, take a second to remind yourself that peace is both valuable and priceless, inherently free yet often costly.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening chords, humming almost at whisper-level.

2. The soprano soloist, slow and deliberate, echoing like a distant trumpet playing “Last Post”.

3. At 1:18 there’s just a hint of Gregorian chant, giving the piece a solemn, funeral-like atmosphere.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting your problems in perspective.

21 Oct

Week 180: “Bright Shadows” by Alexander Campkin

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Available October 25th. Buy it here.

Ten years ago, in my first year as a teacher, a group of 4th grade students and I invented “shadow tag”.

Okay, maybe we didn’t invent it. I’m sure many other people have come up with the same idea, but we felt like we invented it, and the feeling of spontaneous creation made it all the more fun.

The rules were simple: step on someone’s shadow, and they’re ‘it’.

After several minutes of stomping and giggling we paused to come up with some more rules. No tag backs. No standing right up against the wall to make your shadow disappear. No hiding your shadow in the shade of the big tree for more than ten seconds. Then someone suggested that tag backs were okay, if you could make your shadow tag someone else’s shadow.

Shadow tag became our go-to game for the rest of the year. To someone unfamiliar with the rules, it must have looked pretty ridiculous from a distance; a group of people running near each other, but never coming into direct contact, and occasionally ducking for no apparent reason. And, of course, laughing hysterically the whole time.

I hadn’t thought about shadow tag for years, until hearing Alexander Campkin’s “Bright Shadows”, a haunting piece of choral perfection commissioned and recorded by the Cambridge-based choir Concanenda.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way the vocals enter by overlapping each other on the word ‘bright’, each voice one tone higher than the last. It makes me think of lights being turned on, one by one, in different corners of a room, throwing shadows in all directions.

2. The floaty line about eternity and time at 1.20. This is a quote from another piece by Campkin, “I Saw Eternity”, and it reminded me that ten years seems like yesterday and forever ago all at once.

3. The way the word “shadows” lands on a nice major chord at 2.57, an unexpected break in the song’s persistent dissonance.

Recommended listening activity:

Exploring your bedroom ceiling with a flashlight.

25 Mar

Week 150: “O Vos Omnes” by Tomas Luis De Victoria

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Polyphony used to be considered offensive.

It’s hard to imagine how two people singing different notes could possibly offend anyone, but there was a time when the Catholic Church decreed that anything other than Gregorian chant, or plainsong, was unsuitable. Pope John XXII had this to say about composers who used harmony:

“These composers…cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere.” (From Teachings of the Holy Father, 1324)

With this in mind, songs like “O Vos Omnes” seem as rebellious as anything London produced during the peak of punk. So put on some ripped jeans, gel your hair into a mohawk, give yourself a “Palestrina 4 Life” tattoo, and enjoy this wonderful piece of polyphony by Tomas Luis De Victoria.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Often, a line begins with a single note, allowing the harmony to grow around it, and accentuating the polyphony.

2. At 1:48, most of the choir drops out, leaving just three voices.

3. It spends so much time avoiding thirds, that when it becomes decisively major or minor, it’s always a surprise.

Recommended listening activity:

Seeing the sign, but walking on the grass anyway.

28 Jan

Week 142: “Lacrimosa” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

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Mozart’s death has spawned more theories than probably any other event in the history of music.

Depending on whom you choose to believe, Mozart may have died from poison, a streptococcal infection, kidney stones, rheumatic fever, a subdural hematoma, malpractice on the part of his doctor, or self-medicating an illness that didn’t exist.

But no matter whether you think it was Salieri on the grassy knoll or simply the common cold, you’ve got to think he died too young. At 35, he had survived the transition from child prodigy to fully-grown superstar, and some of his later work is considered by many to be his strongest. His legendary Requiem, which he had barely begun when he died, remains as mysterious as his death. How much of it was finished when he died? Did he write it because he foresaw his own death? Who completed it once he was gone, and which sections did they write?  All these things add to the mystique of what is, by any measure, a beautiful piece of music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening bars (which may be the only section actually written by Mozart) give the feeling that something ominous is coming. If there was a soundtrack to the grim reaper tip-toeing, this would be it.

2. There’s a quiet, major-key section around 1:40 that’s like a fake-out sequence at the end of a horror movie, when it seems like everything is going to be okay. But by 2:10 we’re back to the minor key, and the grim reaper is back.

3. It ends with a big, wonderful “Amen” that the orchestra holds for as long as it can before the choir runs out of breath.

Recommended listening activity:

Dusting off the Ouija board.

02 Apr

Week 99: “Miserere Mei” by Gregorio Allegri

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Along with years of piano lessons, the experience that really fixed music as an important part of my life was being in a choir. It was a church choir, and I enjoyed it immensely, even though I was never really religious (the only time I remember praying was when I lost my brand new baseball glove and declared privately that I was prepared to go to church for the rest of my life if God would be so kind as to let me have it back).

There were no girls in the choir, which made it much less complicated for me, as I couldn’t figure out how to talk and breathe simultaneously in front of girls, much less sing in front of one. There was a nice friendship between the boys; it was a bit like being in Boy Scouts, except that instead of tying knots and building fires, we were singing choral music. (And, occasionally, building fires.)

But the main reason for the men & boys choir is the sound it creates. There’s a purity to the men & boys sound that can’t be produced otherwise, and in no other piece of music is this as evident as it is in Gregorio Allegri’s famous “Miserere”, performed in churches around the world at this time of year.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chanting. Inserted between each verse, it gives the piece a middle-agey feel, despite the fact that it was written during the Baroque period.

2. The solo. When I was a choirboy, this piece was the Super Bowl of the choir calendar. And if you got the solo, with its incredible top C, you were the MVP. Funnily enough, I’ve heard that the top C wasn’t in the original score, but came into being as a result of a copyist’s error in the 1800s.

3. The harmonies. Although the soprano solo with its top C is exciting, each vocal line is beautiful in its own way. I wouldn’t use “haunting” or “mysterious” to describe many songs, but this one fits. The mystery was, for the first few centuries of the song’s existence, intentional, as the Vatican prohibited copies from being made, on threat of excommunication. The first unauthorized copy, apparently, was made in 1770 by a 14-year-old named Wolfgang Mozart, who heard the piece twice, imprinted it on his memory, and wrote it out later.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting by a stained-glass window late in the afternoon.

06 Dec

Week 30: “Tender” by Blur

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It’s always seemed strange to me that Blur and Oasis got lumped into the same category. Perhaps people in Britain never saw it that way, but on this side of the Atlantic they were always mentioned in the same breath, as the leaders of the “New British Invasion”. Maybe it says something about the inability of North American audiences to distinguish between anything that’s not home-grown. Or maybe we North Americans like the idea of a rivalry, and Blur-Oasis looked like a good sequel to Beatles-Stones.

Either way, by the mid-90s, Blur and Oasis had started moving in pretty different directions, and it became more and more difficult to keep mentioning them in the same sentence. While Oasis decided to go the route of drugs, controversy, and songs that all sound the same, Blur opted to develop a more experimental sound. This song comes from the 1999 album “13”, which was largely a melancholy album; many of its songs, including this one, were influenced greatly by lead singer Damon Albarn’s breakup with Justine Frischmann, the lead singer of Elastica.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The AM-radio sound of the opening guitar.

2. The simple boom-kick-boom of the percussion. Along with the lo-fi opening guitar sound, it makes me imagine a white-haired man from Alabama sitting on his front porch, happily creaking back and forth in his rocking chair in time with the music.

3. The London Community Gospel Choir. I find it amazing that Blur, when everyone was waiting for a follow-up to their raucous 2-minute hit “Song 2”, would open their very next album with a 7-minute slow jam featuring a gospel choir and nary a “woo-hoo” to be heard.

Recommended listening activity:

Forsaking e-mail and sending an actual pen-and-paper letter to someone you miss.

28 Jun

Week 7: “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre

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I first heard this song a couple of years ago at a choral concert close to where I live. I had never heard of the composer or the song, and I was blown away; it was one of those great and rare moments where the hair on the back of your neck stands so tall that it almost dislodges itself from its follicles. I challenge anyone to print off the lyrics, listen to the song, and think of a loved one who has recently died.  If you’re not a sobbing wreck by the end, you have no heart.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The dissonance. Eric Whitacre is what you might call a modern-choral-pop composer, and I mean that in the best possible way. While some modern composers seem to write with the dual purpose of making the music incredibly complex and entirely unlistenable, Whitacre picks his spots perfectly, using dissonance to make his cadences all the more satisfying.

2. The lyrics. Originally, Whitacre had wanted to use a Robert Frost poem, but copyright problems forced him to change course. The lyrics are by Charles Silvestri, and depending on which internet source you believe, they were either written for a young boy who couldn’t fall asleep, or for a soprano whose parents died within days of each other. Either way, they’re simple and evocative.

3. The end. If the choir performing it is skilled enough, the effect is perfect: this world fades away and silence creeps in.

Recommended listening activity:

Visiting a cemetery on a sunny day and finally being okay with it.