Sing We, and Chant it?
I just had the immense pleasure of attending the Colorado ACDA convention up in Denver for another year. This was my third time attending, and I continue to be amazed by how much there is to take away. This year's session leaders included the phenomenal Drs. James Jordan and Tony Guzmán, along with several other wonderful educators from right here in Colorado.
Because I see myself equally as a conductor and composer, my brain at these conventions is sometimes a little scattered. I'll often be simultaneously looking for new texts to set, new composers whose work is unique and interesting, networking (something I recognize as a necessary evil), and any new thoughts that I can impart into my teaching and writing.
One of the biggest things that I took away from this year's convention; however, was Dr. Jordan's emphasis on Chant as the basic DNA of what we (who are steeped in the western european art music tradition) do as singers. As the beginning of our recorded musical history--with the exception of a small number of works from antiquity--Chant's emphasis on text centricity and melodic construction has informed everything we do as choral artists.
I'm often asked what sort of "style" my works fit into, and I find I have a hard time putting that down. There are certainly "tricks" that I employ often, but I think if you were to compare several of my works, the one consistent unifying trait (I hope) you would find is that the text drives the setting. Whether it be the romantic lines of La Vita Nuova, the raucous multimeter of Io Vivat, or the immensely personal and autobiographical poetic vignettes of Susurrations, the text is the starting point for almost all of my work. This is often why many of my works are through-composed, as well: if the text doesn't repeat, I need a pretty good reason to include an exact replica of musical material as well.
Come to think of it, this may also be why I'm equally drawn to folk music and musical theatre. While the chord structures underneath Patty Griffin's music, for example, certainly aren't revolutionary, she has a unique and beautiful gift for crafting melodies that suit the words perfectly. Stephen Sondheim, by contrast, has been critiqued for not writing "hummable melodies," (garbage. in. my. opinion.) but his works always take us on a journey from beginning to end, a lesson he learned from Oscar Hammerstein. Chant embodies each of these traits, in its own way, and I have no doubt it will continue to influence my art as I continue to grow as a conductor and composer.
By the way, I had written it long before attending this year's session, but here is a chant of my own, called "Make the Earth Your Companion," which is to be part of my forthcoming choral song cycle for women's chorus. The phenomenal meditative text is by J. Patrick Lewis.