Saturday, May 24, 2014

Digging into Terra Nostra

(This is an update on my Terra Nostra oratorio project; you can read about its origins in my February 2014 blog post.)

Now that the semester is over and my teaching obligations at Roosevelt University are done until January, I’m digging deep into Terra Nostra, the oratorio I’m composing for the San Francisco Choral Society and Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. These organizations joint-commissioned me to write an oratorio about our planet. The oratorio consists of three parts: Part I represents the creation of the world; Part II depicts the triumphs of humanity and how our planet is being affected; and Part III contemplates finding a balance between mankind and earth so that we can co-exist. For the past year, I’ve researched texts and assembled them into a libretto, as well as worked on clearing texts still in copyright. Now I’m up to the composing stage – what is the best way to begin?

Sketch from "In the beginning"
First up, I took another hard look at the libretto. I’ve known all along that I collected too many texts for the libretto, and that not everything was going to fit into the piece (part of this was intentional - it was highly unlikely that I would be granted clearance for all texts still under copyright, so I wanted some backups on hand). I read through all of the texts again and began imagining how the text might be set, how many minutes each text would take to be sung, and how much time should be allotted to instrumental interludes. Once I did the math, it was time to start cutting out texts; anything that didn’t match the message I am trying to deliver was taken out. Unfortunately, this meant removing texts by the environmentalist John Muir and poet Carl Sandburg. In exchange, I found a wonderful poem by living poet and agrarian Wendell Berry called The Want of Peace, which will work very well at a crucial moment in Part III. Chances are I’ll still need to cut out a little more text along the way, but I hope not too much more – I like the shape that the libretto is taking.

Next, I started sketching ideas for several movements in Parts I and III. As much as I’d like to write the piece from the beginning straight through to the end, composing isn’t a linear process for me. I need to know what motives, gestures, and progressions will be important in Part III while I’m composing Parts I and II, so I can start to foreshadow and develop these over the course of the entire oratorio. This means that I need to compose some of the music in Part III while working on Part I. There is an additional tie-in for Parts I and III: both Parts conclude with identical text from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I introduce the material in Part I sung by the children and adult choruses, and will develop it with additional text from Leaves of Grass that will be sung by the four soloists.  So whatever I write for Part I needs to have enough potential to grow into something bigger to end the entire oratorio.

My sketching process involves pencil and paper reductions made at a keyboard, which I then start to flesh out as I enter the material into a computer notation program. At this stage, I’m mostly composing piano reductions, as the choirs and soloists will need those scores from which to rehearse.  Eventually, these will be fleshed out for the orchestra at a later point. 

Sketch from "Of thine own child"

Suffice it to say, I’m making headway on the oratorio. But with a project of this size and scope, thank goodness I have eight months to complete the entire piece! The San Francisco Choral Society is rolling out Terra Nostra in three stages. People in Northern California can catch the premiere of Part I this November 15 and 16 at Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco (please click here for concert information). Part II will premiere in April 2015, and Parts I, II, and III will be performed as a whole in November 2015. Keep posted for more blog post updates as I get further into the piece!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A perfect short residence in Dallas

With Artistic Director Maria Schleuning
and pre-concert presenter Laurie Shulman
This past weekend, I travelled to Dallas, Texas for a three-day residence with Voices of Change. Currently in its 39th year, the ensemble is dedicated to performing new music, as well as music of the recent past. They have commissioned over twenty-five works, given more than seventy-five world premieres, and released five CDs, one of which was a finalist for a 1999 Grammy Award (classical small ensemble category). They regularly bring in composers from around the country, so I was excited when Artistic Director and violinist Maria Schleuning contacted me and said the ensemble would be featuring me and a few of my works on their series.

My residence involved several components: rehearsals of my Silver Dagger and The Book of American Poetry, Volume III; an outreach program at a local high school involving a performance of one of my works, followed up with a discussion about how I wrote the piece as well as questions from the students; a very spirited pre-concert discussion with Laurie Shulman, the program annotator and pre-concert presenter for the ensemble; and the concert itself. The performers were comprised of many top musicians in Dallas (several are members of the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera Orchestra) and were superb. I also met and worked with mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton, who had an absolutely lovely voice and a theatrical flair to match; she sang my Book of American Poetry beautifully. Our rehearsals went so smoothly that I was able to make several last-minute adjustments to The Book of American Poetry, something you can only do when musicians have the music down cold!

With mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton
Voices of Change also hosts a great tie-in event for their concerts called SoundBites. Held at Times Ten Cellars, this free event featured wine tastings while patrons listened to clarinetists Jonathan Jones and Jazmin Yuen perform my Stubborn as Hell. We also treated the audience to a short coaching session in which I shaped the piece with the musicians; this provided the audience with a behind-the-scenes look into how a composer operates. Activities like this are a fantastic way to take some of the mystery out of composing for non-musicians – not too much, but enough so they understand why and how we do what we do.

Voices of Change had another special event: three Texas-based composers who won the ensembles’ Young Composers Competition had their pieces performed by Dallas Symphony musicians in an hour-long workshop. I was on hand and offered constructive feedback, as did the musicians. I was also thrilled to meet Fabian Beltran (the first place winner) at this event, as he will be one of our participating composers at Fresh Inc Festival next month for which I’m on faculty along with Fifth House Ensemble and composer Dan Visconti (keep posted for blogs about Fresh Inc next month).

With composer Jack Waldenmaier
and board members Heather Carlile and Harvey Stiegler
Through it all, southern hospitality abounded. On the night I arrived to Dallas, Voices of Change board member Heather Carlile and her husband Jack Waldenmaier graciously threw a dinner party in my honor and invited several local composers and friends.  Board members, musicians, and staff drove me all over town for rehearsals, dinners, and receptions. When I didn’t have time to get supper between back-to-back events on Sunday, Maria brought me a delicious homemade meal. The townspeople were friendly, as were the drivers: at one point, I mistakenly crossed a street against a green light and into oncoming traffic. When I realized my error, I looked up at the driver who was patiently waiting for me to cross…without honking. Perhaps living and working in a major, bustling city has left me a little more jaded than I realized; nonetheless, I was touched by the hospitality I encountered in all aspects of my trip.

Voices of Change has made a strong commitment to the music of living and recent composers, and their residencies with living composers are wonderfully beneficial for both the residents and musicians of Dallas as well as for their featured composers. Anyone who is fortunate to be an invited guest by Voices of Change is in store for a perfect weekend!