Monday, September 21, 2015

Getting Back to My Roots: Adventures in Writing Jewish Music for Chicago a cappella

This month, I am featuring two blog posts that I wrote back in 2006-2007, long before I began My second blog post dates from December 4, 2007; Jonathan Miller, the artistic director of Chicago a cappella, asked if I would write an entry for his column on the (now defunct) website. I had recently written two works for Chicago a cappella, and he wanted me to blog about the composing experience for the pieces. When re-reading the blog post below, I find it ironic that I had pictured the two commissioned pieces to be a set; in the years since their creation, they have not yet been sung together on the same concert, though they are individually enjoying their share of performances. Sometimes, the life of a work doesn’t quite turn out to be what a composer expects!

Cedille Records' CD containing
Chicago a cappella singing
Lo Yisa Goy
An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse. Last spring, Jonathan Miller asked me if I’d accept a commission to write two new religious-themed works for Chicago a cappella’s 2007-08 season. Busy as my composing schedule is these days, I have a distinct weakness for writing choral works and will find a way to squeeze more time out of a day to write them. And who can refuse an opportunity to work with the singers of Chicago a cappella?!

Roots Run Deep. I have only set the texts of Edna St. Vincent Millay for choir up until now, so these two works were a real departure for me (and frankly one that has been long overdue). But even deeper than my obsession with Millay’s sonnets are the roots laid down in my childhood. Raised in a Jewish household, I grew up singing in the synagogue as well as in school choirs. Both singing and Judaism have run in my veins for a long time, and even though I no longer practice Judaism nor sing anywhere except the shower, these are the pillars that have shaped my life. 

How to Spin an Old, Familiar Song (or Two). I had three priorities for writing these two works: 1. Choose songs that had been part of my Jewish past; 2. The two songs could work as a set for future performances (past their respective premieres); and 3. The works needed to show off the tremendous capabilities of Chicago a cappella’s singers. Jonathan and I batted around some text possibilities, and I chose the celebratory Hava Nagila (which gets danced to at weddings and bat/bar mitzvahs), as well as the more somber Lo Yisa Goy (which is a prayer for peace). 

Since both of these are traditional Jewish folksongs, melodies already exist for each. I decided that I’d employ portions of the traditional melodies and surround these with new material. I won’t go into too many details here, but suffice it to say that I was determined to put my own spin on both of these two works. I left the Hava Nagila more or less intact, but added new material at the beginning and middle of the piece. With Lo Yisa Goy, I set the text in both Hebrew and English; just about all of the Hebrew was set using three traditional melodies, while I wrote original music for all of the English. Ultimately, both works provide the audience member with a certain level of familiarity packaged within a new framework.

Chicago a cappella Records'
recording of Hava Nagila
Take it From the Top… There were particular singers I kept in mind while writing – Susan Schober's and Betsy Grizzell’s strong mezzo voices, Trevor Mitchell's and Harold (Hoss) Brock’s amazing upper tenor registers, and Jonathan’s solid low bass notes (I didn’t realize until later that Jonathan was stepping down from his performing role in the group, although I was thrilled to hear Benjamin Rivera’s deep bass voice join the group). So when I attended a rehearsal of each piece prior to their premieres and finally heard the choir singing my pieces out loud, I felt like shouting for joy. Hoss particularly stunned me the first time I heard him sing the opening tenor solo in Lo Yisa Goy – I could put that snippet on my iPod and play it for a week straight. These rehearsals are vital to me because I get to see how the piece fits the group, and where the problem spots are (spots where my choral writing doesn’t work as smoothly as I thought, creating some trouble for the choir). Chicago a cappella’s singers were certainly not shy about bringing up the problem spots in the Hava Nagila, which I greatly appreciate and prefer over a choir that struggles in silence, and we had a most productive session problem-solving these measures.

Surprise, Surprise! Premiere performances are usually emotional roller-coaster rides for me, and I’m betting for the performers as well. At this point, there’s NOTHING a composer can do to help her or his piece – it is all in the hands (or in this case, voices) of the performers. Sometimes, this can be a real nail-biting experience. Thankfully, Chicago a cappella knows their stuff, and I didn’t even need to think about being nervous on their behalf. It also helped that right before they sang the Hava Nagila on their first Days of Awe and Rejoicing concert, Hoss spotted me in the audience and winked, which I took to mean that they’re ready to have fun with it, and they proved so moments later. Nonetheless, you never know how the audience will respond to a new piece. At the beginning of the Hava Nagila, the men sing with a very nasal quality. I thought of this as an interesting tone color following in the footsteps of composers like Gyorgy Ligeti and Luciano Berio. The audience, however, heard this opening as humorous, and their laughter took me completely by surprise. I can see the piece from the audience’s point of view, and it is just as viable as my interpretation. 

With Chicago a cappella in December 2014 after a
performance of Lo Yisa Goy.
The End of the Journey (or is it???) Ultimately, Jonathan Miller and Chicago a cappella are directly responsible for bringing these two pieces into existence. Without Jonathan’s offer of a commission, I never would have thought to set these Jewish folksongs. Composing any piece is a chance to explore some aspect of my life – in this case, my past. This exploration turned out to be a wonderful experience that revived and renewed my old appreciation for the music of Judaism. While this may be the end of my journey in writing these two works, my Hava Nagila and Lo Yisa Goy are now embarking on their own, hopefully long lives through the voices of Chicago a cappella and eventually other choirs. Jonathan, thank you for everything.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Newbie in the Studio: Top 10 Observations of the Recording Process

This month, I am featuring two blog posts that I wrote back in 2006-2007, long before I began My very first blog post dates from Oct. 21, 2006; I was invited by Cedille Records president James Ginsburg to write an entry for his column on the (now defunct) website. I had just experienced my very first recording session. It was with the Biava Quartet; they were recording my second string quartet for Cedille Records. When re-reading the blog post below, I get a kick reading how exuberant I was to be in those recording sessions!  I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store. Honestly, I still feel get a bit of that feeling whenever I step into a recording session. I've added commentary on my earlier thoughts in brackets.

On October 9th and 10th, Jim Ginsburg invited the Biava Quartet and I out to the WFMT studio to record my String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels.  This piece is being included on an upcoming CD for Cedille Records. The CD, entitled Composers in the Loft, features five composers who have had works performed on Fredda Hyman’s Music in the Loft chamber series. I have previously had a few works recorded professionally, but I’ve never been able to be present in such a session. For the Biava too (comprised of violinists Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko, violist Mary Persin, and cellist Jacob Braun), this professional recording session was a first. Jim asked me to write a blog entry about the recording experience, which I decided to do as a top ten list of my observations. Here they are, in no particular order:

Cedille Records' CD, containing the
Biava Quartet's recording sessions for my
String Quartet No. 2: Demons and Angels
1. Time gobblers. The spots that ate up the most recording time all involved transparent or exposed textures in my music. Unisons, octaves, pizzicati (when two or more people had to perform them simultaneously) all gobbled up seconds. Which increased to minutes. Will this change how I compose in the future? Nope, but I’ll surely look at exposed spots with a new appreciation for the work performers have to pour into these places to make the music shine. [In retrospect, I can say that I did start composing differently after these recording sessions – I was a lot more careful about exposed unisons, octaves, and pizzicati.]

2. Two peas in a pod. Jim Ginsburg and Bill Maylone worked together like a well-oiled machine – easy to tell these two have been doing recording sessions for a long, long time (seeing such expertise at work makes any newbie feel like you’re in good hands). And they also gave my ears a real challenge. What do I mean by this? Read on…

3. Teaching your old ears new tricks, or at least how to listen like a CD producer/engineer. In a live performance, I’m concerned about hearing the big picture – long lines, overall shaping of phrases, etc. But in a recording session, the focus is on vertical listening. Did everyone’s downbeat line up? How’s the tuning in beat 2? Whose bow hit the music stand? Who is breathing loudly? And so on. Stuff I would never even pay attention to in a live performance, since the piece is unfolding linearly, suddenly became ultra-important. Which leads to…

4. The balancing act. The main issue with recording a piece is finding the balance between the work’s overall musical shape and the moment-by-moment accuracy. A process emerged: the Biava would record each movement in a single take. Then they’d join us in the recording booth, and everyone dissected the take while listening to the playback. These full takes helped give Jim and Bill a chance to hear how the Biava shaped the material (in addition, Jim had meticulously studied the entire score beforehand). Then the nitty-gritty work began – the Biava would record each movement in short blocks, sometimes 5-10 times each, before moving onto the next block.  I have to admit to feeling dazed by the end of the process, and I think the Biava shared a bit of the same feeling – we knew everything got recorded, but how will Jim and Bill sift through the assortment of the magical moments and perfect tunings to fit all the short blocks into a cohesive movement with the same mood as what you get in a single take? From what I experienced in the recording booth, as well as from the quality of Cedille’s catalog, Jim and Bill are experts solving this dilemma in a most artistic manner. They’ll find that balance. 
The Biava Quartet

5. The awe-inspiring endurance of 20-somethings. The Biava played each day for about 4 hours total, going over two and a half hours before a lunch break, and without a single request to sit down and rest. By the way, everyone but Jacob stood for the entire recording session – they’re more comfortable performing this way, and it certainly works well for their sound. I’d like to think I had this much energy when I was 25.

6. Who’s the pickiest of them all? No matter how much I thought I, or one of the recording team, was being picky about a pitch or passage, the Biava would step up their self-criticism when something wasn’t to their liking. Didn’t matter how many times they’ve already played a passage, or how tired they might be getting. Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, and Jacob were very, very demanding on themselves. Which definitely made them hungry for…

7. Lunch! Stopping to reload everyone’s energy in the WFMT cafeteria was a must, particularly when the cafeteria stocks tasty double chocolate chip cookies (true on the first day, but not the second).

8. Coffee! Not everyone drank the stuff, but Austin found a machine in the cafeteria which supplied something better than I thought should be coming out of a machine.

9. What a composer can do in the recording booth? At first, I felt a bit useless in the booth – the Biava was exerting tons of energy in the studio, Jim and Bill were busy with the recording machines and taking notes, and all I had to do was listen, score and notepad in hand. It didn’t take long to figure out that’s exactly the best way to be useful for all of us. It certainly helped when I developed some shorthand scribbles to take note of spots that worked well or needed to be touched up. Which leads me to my final item…

10.  Enjoying the moment. Every now and then, I’d take a mental step out of the session and appreciate what was going on – all these people are here because they believe in what I wrote. Pretty amazing. But better not to enjoy the moment for too long, else I’d not be doing the heavy duty listening to keep up with Jim, Bill, and the Biava!

Now that the session is over, Jim and Bill go to work on all those hours of tape. The Biava and I will eagerly await getting CDs in the mail for us all to proof, and which will be a testament to the amazing sessions we had in early October. My most heartfelt thanks go to Jim, Bill, Austin, Hyunsu, Mary, Jacob, for all of their work to bring the piece alive, and of course to Fredda Hyman, for without her series to bring us all together, we never would have all found each other.