Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy 25th Anniversary, Cedille Records!

Click here to watch a video of Cedille Records recording
artists talk about the impact Cedille has on their careers.
At this precarious moment in the music industry in which CD sales are globally declining, Chicago-based Cedille Records has not only beat the odds but is flourishing. From the expansion of the number of CDs produced each year, a growing roster of recording artists, and four Grammies for their eighth blackbird recordings, Cedille Records has proven itself a vibrant entity in the classical music world. This year, they celebrate their 25th anniversary with an assortment of concerts and special events scattered throughout the 2014–2015 concert season.

Cedille has recorded my works on seven CDs with a host of talented ensembles and individuals including the Lincoln Trio, Chicago a cappella, Grant Park Chorus, Gaudete Brass, mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, and the (now defunct) Biava Quartet. Cedille recorded the first ever all-Garrop chamber CD titled In Eleanor’s Words: Music of Stacy Garrop. Cedille is currently recording my fourth string quartet with the Avalon Quartet (who are new to the label), as well as producing an all-Garrop orchestral CD featuring the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra (also new to the label).

What makes Cedille so special? I find there are several aspects:

With flutist and fellow Cedille recording artist
Eugenia Moliner at Soirée Cedille
• James Ginsburg, president of Cedille Records, made it the company’s mission to mainly focus on Chicago area musicians and composers. The company often records pieces they consider under-represented. They occasionally work with ensembles that are from outside the area (always in projects with a Chicago connection), but for the most part, Mr. Ginsburg has carefully cultivated a diverse group of Chicago artists that offer a great amount of variety to his label.  I find that this Chicago-based focus encourages Cedille’s artists to collaborate with each other on potential CD projects.

• Cedille helps artists develop their careers over time. Some artists are regulars on the label – violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Jennifer Koh, eighth blackbird, and the Pacifica Quartet are all in this category – and have created an assortment of CDs that explore an astoundingly diverse range. For instance, when Ms. Pine was pregnant, she was inspired to research and record lullabies; when the Pacifica Quartet proposed to record Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets, they wanted to add a piece of Shostakovich’s contemporaries onto every CD in this multi-CD project. While Mr. Ginsburg doesn’t accept all projects that artists propose, he carefully chooses those that have something unique to offer both the label and its audiences. Cedille furthers its commitment to artists by never removing recordings from its catalog.

• Cedille allows its artists to be extremely involved in just about every aspect of a project. Suggesting repertoire, actively participating in the recording sessions (while this is obvious for performers, it isn’t necessarily so for composers), proofing the recordings before they go on the market, even ideas for covers and liner notes – Cedille is open to it all. This, for me, is unprecedented access to the shaping of the project that allows me to be an essential part of the process.

• The company actively promotes its products. Cedille’s distribution is handled by Naxos of America in the Western Hemisphere and by major independent distributors in international markets elsewhere. Cedille regularly purchases advertising in Fanfare magazine (on the back cover, which gives their products a lot of exposure), as well as sends information about new releases, plus the CDs themselves, to hundreds of music critics, writers, press outlets, and classical radio stations in the U.S. and internationally. As a result of these strong promotional efforts, new CDs are regularly reviewed by a number of publications and critics (I received seven for my In Eleanor’s Words CD) and aired coast-to-coast on classical radio.

Rachel Barton Pine and Wendy Warner
perform at Soirée Cedille
Without Cedille Records, my career wouldn’t be nearly as far along as it is. Cedille has given me a voice and a market to hear it. Their amazing producers and engineers craft high-quality products, which provides the classical music world with fantastic representations of how my music sounds in the hands and voices of talented performers. These CDs have led to numerous performances of my music around the country, as well as commissions for new works and the expansion of my fan base. Thank you Cedille Records for everything you do on behalf of Chicago artists!  Happy 25th Anniversary, and may the next twenty-five years be just as fruitful as your first.

Friday, November 14, 2014

5 Musical Inspirations for Terra Nostra

Whenever I start a new piece, I listen to a LOT of music. Sometimes I drown my ears in the music of baroque composers like Bach and Handel, sometimes in folk-inspired artists like Mumford & Sons or Joan Baez – I’ll listen to anything that strikes my fancy as a source of inspiration. Ultimately, I start to hone my listening list down to pieces that have similar forces and scope as the piece I’m about to compose. As I brainstormed about the type of music to compose for Terra Nostra, I went big. Terra Nostra is my 65-minute oratorio for adult and children’s choirs, four soloists, and orchestra, so I studied works that were comparable in some manner to my project. Here are the top five inspirations that I studied throughout the composing of my oratorio:

1. Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth – cover recorded by Martin Gore (originally composed by the rock band Sparks)

Okay, this song is the opposite of an oratorio with only a duration of three minutes and the performing forces consisting of a singer and his band. But this little golden nugget is what got me thinking about writing a piece about our planet in the first place. In 2008, I was commissioned to write a new string quartet. During my brainstorming phase for the quartet, I coincidentally happened to be listening to Gore’s rendition of the song while watching an intense thunderstorm outside my window. Gore’s hauntingly beautiful voice, along with the song’s lyrics and raging storm, gave me the distinct impression that I was listening to a cautionary tale about the dangers of not paying attention to our planet. I wrote the string quartet about Gaia (the Greek personification of the planet) but felt my work on the subject wasn’t done. When the San Francisco Choral Society asked what I’d like to write an oratorio about, I knew exactly what the topic would be.

2. Elijah – Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn

This is the first oratorio I ever sang when as an undergraduate student, and it has remained a personal favorite. Written for four soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it times out around two and a quarter hours. Yet it never feels that long to me - how easily the music flows from one section to another! Mendelssohn masterfully controlled the pacing of his story of the prophet Elijah so that it just flies by. There is a particularly well-paced sequence in which Elijah repeatedly instructs the prophets of Baal to have their god prove his existence; as the prophets get more desperate to summon their god, so does the music until it reaches a feverish pitch that is only answered by silence. Mendelssohn tempers these wonderful moments of high drama with several sweet songs (Lift Thine Eyes, for instance); he is also mindful to employ a four-chord motif repeatedly throughout the entire oratorio that draws everything together.

3. Mass – Leonard Bernstein

At some point during my early graduate days, I encountered an LP of Bernstein’s Mass at a garage sale. When I brought it home and put it on the record player, I was stunned by what I heard. What is this melting pot of musical styles (rock, jazz, blues, folks, gospel, contemporary classical, etc.) folded around the story of a Celebrant who is trying to lead an unruly congregation through a traditional Roman Catholic Mass service that goes horribly awry? How had I never heard of this piece before?? This two-hour, semi-staged theatrical work for soloists, adult and boy choirs, dancers, pit orchestra, and onstage instrumentalists was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Bernstein had a thing for treading on fine lines that others might leave untouched (just look at Candide), but I had never seen anyone take it to this extreme. As the Celebrant keeps leading the Mass service, the congregants get more and more rowdy. The piece comes to a powerful peak when the Celebrant finally breaks down and smashes the altar. What follows next is an incredible fourteen-minute musical monologue that revisits many of the piece’s musical themes. In a particularly poignant moment of the monologue, the Celebrant segues from the word “Adonai” (Hebrew for God) into “I don’t know.” While this isn’t Bernstein’s finest work, his handling of the structure of the Mass, along with the pacing of its destruction, is very well done. He also repurposes material from the opening song (“A Simple Song”) at the very end (“Secret Songs”), which effectively bookend the piece.

4. Carmina Burana – Carl Orff

It is hard to beat “O Fortuna” when one is looking at how to craft raw, pounding energy. Orff scored the piece for large forces – three soloists, choir, and a big orchestra – which made this entire piece essential listening. In addition to studying “O Fortuna,” which Orff used as the both the first and final movements, there are a number of more delicate movements throughout this hour long piece that explore a good deal of orchestration and color.

5. Dona Nobis Pacem – Ralph Vaughan Williams

I originally began listening to Dona Nobis Pacem because the premiere of the first section of my oratorio was paired up with this work on the San Francisco Choral Society’s concert. But the more I delved into the piece, the more I fell in love with it. Scored for soprano and baritone soloists, choir, and orchestra, this approximately 35 minute piece is Vaughan Williams’ emotional response to war. Vaughan Williams created his libretto from excerpts of the Roman Catholic Mass, Bible, and poetic works of Walt Whitman and John Bright. Since I was compiling my own libretto for Terra Nostra, I was very interested in what texts he selected to create an overarching narrative. Another interesting aspect of the piece involves the soprano – she only sings the Latin texts that frame the opening and closing of the cantata, as well as at a climactic moment in the piece. I didn’t end up using the idea of a singular role for a soloist in my oratorio, but will consider it in future compositions.

Ultimately, I studied a wide array of musical elements in these works: the overall dramatic story, the pacing of the music, the lengths of instrumental interludes, and how the soloists, choir, and orchestra forces were balanced with each other. These five works, along with several others, helped me to make decisions on how to structure and shape Terra Nostra into its final form.