Thursday, June 28, 2012

From the Colloquium composer seminars

I really have enjoyed the three days thus far of the new format of composers offering their new (and sometimes vintage) pieces for audition, support and, yes, critique. Of course, under the truly pastoral eye of David Hughes' facilitation, the exchange of support and suggestions, reasoning and recollection has created a truly collegial and positive environment. Everyday has seen a few new faces walk through the door, and everyone leaves smiling for any number of reasons. One obvious reason is that this generation of composers knows the principles of Musicam Sacram and recognizes that in these time-honed disciplines, there is yet tremendous freedom for expression.

53. New works of sacred music should conform faithfully to the principles and norms set out above. In this way they will have "the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, being within the capacities not merely of large choirs but of smaller choirs, facilitating the participation of all the faithful."38 As regards the heritage that has been handed down those parts which correspond to the needs of the renewed Liturgy should first be brought to light. Competent experts in this field must then carefully consider whether other parts can be adapted to the same needs. As for those pieces which do not correspond to the nature of the Liturgy or cannot be harmonized with the pastoral celebration of the Liturgy -- they may be profitably transferred to popular devotions, especially to celebrations of the word of God.
In the interest of keeping the confidence of those composers, unlike myself, who risked and Saturday will further risk, the scrutiny of their fellows not to identify them by name. But we have a totally new panel thus far, some of whom we know from forums, but none that I've known from previous colloquium reading sessions. That is a VERY good indicator or progress. I've subscribed to the "Mike Tyson" Principle, which is that though there are clearly true champions known to the public wide and far, there are likely a host of "comers" out in the hinterlands punching the little and big bags waiting for their moment. So, yes, there are more Kevin Allen's out there, and some are here.
One of them has had two pieces read and considered-a Reproaches for Good Friday, and a Vidi aquam that are what my old art professor would have dubbed "Vermeers." They are jewel-like, small grandeur pieces that are practically flawless, full of light and contrast from within and from a divine source (like the side windows the Flemish master was so fond to use to focus attention to the subject's detail.)
Speaking of the Flemish flavor, we have two seminarians who've participated every day this week, one of them from the northern European coastal region. His life story is extraordinary, which includes an early career as a working jazz musician. We've sung one of his works, an entrance hymn that is somewhat like what I think Professor Mahrt called a Missale Properium, a Mass with certain Propers that must must attend the Ordinary. But this two part entrance, accompanied, functions in many varieties. As we all tinkered with it, much to the composer's enthusiasm, the great Hughes suggested we sing it unaccompanied, which wasn't one of the  variables the author noted. What a revelation that took all our breaths away! Two parts, and not Lasso! But of aching beauty that would bring out a whole new dimension to the piece when the antiphon is repeated.
Our bravest soul thus far is a compositional novice whose piece is canon based. S/he is a teacher of younger children (3rd grade and up) and admits to practically no formal theory studies. But this new soul's instincts are very good, and I believe will bring to bear with both his/her compositional evolution and his/her teaching methods a great love and also a reverence for the adherence to the notion that the melody et al is always to serve the liturgical text. And properties common to chant were clearly evident in the "Kyrie" s/he submitted. What was though of as perhaps a pedagogical tool for children also became evidently valuable for adult performance as well.
Our other seminarian (who could pass for Matt Maher!) has submitted a Kyrie and Gloria. Though in five voices, our merry six voices managed to sing it quite smoothly, save for the  fat old quy pretending to be a countertenor alto! This composer stated that the Kyrie was inspired by hours of listening to Eric Whitacre pieces, but his "vocabulary" is quite distinct and even apart from that California surfer! His knowledge of both theory and musicality reminded me more of 20th century giants like Rorem or Barber. And though there do occur a few modern clusters we've come to appreciate from Whitacre, Lauridsen, Stroope and others, there is not the ponderous density that sometimes overwhelms the ear and the mind to keep up with the purpose of the composition, the exposition of the text. This Kyrie setting has voice leading with the ease of Palestrina, and the textures and varying spread of harmonic density, tension and release seems the work of a seasoned veteran!
We've also sung and processed the work of a couple of local DM's expressly composed for their own parish choral "forces" which were described as not quite all that "armed!" But a Mass setting in a mannered Byzantine style proved quite exquisite. And another composer's setting of the Medieval carol, "There is no rose of such virtue" uses quite modern chordal textures and voice leading (If you know the work of Clausen, Gawthrop, Paulus, Mulhulland etc.) that still doesn't obscure the beautiful text which originally alternated Chaucerian English with Latin responses. As I look through my stack I've noticed the work of another composer who day job isn't music or teaching oriented is among the lot. So, I will amend and augment this post tomorrow, Friday, after I find it and we read and help each other towards reaching for that "paradigm" we treasure, that music which is sacred, universal and beautiful. I hope to continue to benefit by the generosity and genius of these folk. Come to the Saturday reading session, you'll feel the same way.