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.