Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Lehigh Choral Composers Forum: Day 3

This guy sits in the foyer of the Zoellner Arts Centre
.... we have named him Bernard
Day three, and it's all really kicking off now! After spending the night (and, as I found out, the early morning for some) writing, we submitted our pieces, in whatever state they were in to be read at the seminar by us as the composers. Much like the seminar the day before, this was a discussion and trial of pieces with general feedback and ideas from the group. So, knowing that we were writing for an SATB choir, all the pieces had to utilise female singers... which made it kind of hard for me! But luckily, there's at least two guys on the forum who are very good counter-tenors, so I had a little help in reading the upper choral parts for this seminar (*phew!) - The main thing that struck me in this seminar was how prolific my own writing it. I've always been the kind of writer who gets and idea and just runs with it, and 9/10 my piece will be finished (or at least, finished but requiring some editing) within a few hours, or within a day. So it was definitely noticeable that I was the only composer who had a nearly complete piece! It's something that's alway made me wonder, "... Does that mean my piece isn't as good because I've pulled it together so fast?..." - but judging by the fact that Michael Fairbairns described my piece as "bad-ass", I think I can stop worrying about that! It's just my process - I work fast! - It's also noticeable how many people have struggle even just to settle on an initial idea for a piece. I know one guy started work on three separate texts before deciding which one to do! But each to their own, this is how it is! Everyone has different ways of starting to write, and working through ideas, and even coping with a massive issue or roadblock, and it's really fascinating to be a part of!
- One thing that keeps coming up is most definitely the use of key signatures. Now... this came up last year at the Charlotte New Music Festival, and it seems to be very much related to how you were taught as a musician and a composer. Dr Sven-David Sandstom made a very interesting (albeit it, hilariously blunt and Swedish) comment about how, "using key signatures to write limits your creative process." I know where he's coming from, but for me, I don't agree. I can see what he means if you say, pick a key like A major and then try to write in it, but that's not how I work. I start with a melodic idea or a harmonic progression, and I find the key (or tonal centre) will develop naturally as I write. This piece of mine at this forum is actually very much out there (for me) in terms of tonality. It's still very tonally based and melodic, but the harmonic shifts and much more complex and unexpected than I would normally go for. But I've still used a key signature! Granted, I changed my mind about what the key was a few times, but I, as a singer also feel more comfortable reading keys instead of accidentals. Casey Rule, one of the fellow composers (and intern) made the same agreement with me, that most singers would prefer to read a key signature. Certainly from my experience with choirs back home, I find this the case. Still a hotly debated topic, I don't think we've seen the last of this discussion this week, that's for sure!

My one-to-one session with Dr Steven Sametz today was very productive. Having had nothing to show Dr Sandstrom, and suddenly having a nearly complete work, my session was spent isolating issues such as layout/engraving, possibilities for dynamics and suggestions for reworking some of the part voicings. Each of these sessions have only been 18 minutes, but it is amazing how much you can sort out in a such a short space of time when you put your mind to it. Dr Sametz is very pragmatic, and incredibly efficient at pin-pointing things on your score that need either fixing or thinking about. I know from yesterday's sessions a lot of composers came out of their one-to-one's with him saying, "well I've got to completely change my text", so I'm not going to lie, I was really worried he would absolutely rip my piece to shreds! But no, just very calm and sensible suggestions, and a brief explanation of some engraving tricks to use. I went away from the session with a clear idea of how much I could sort out before the reading session with the Princeton Singers in the evening. One other things that shows off my own personal composing process this week is how, alongside writing this piece, I've started work on another, and will probably tackle at least one more, if not two! The ideas are just jumping around in my help, basically crying to be let out and put on paper - surely I must oblige?! For me, this just highlights how important it is sometimes to get away from the rigours of general living so you have time to actually focus on creating art. Don't get me wrong, I love my job as a vocal coach, but it does take up a fair chunk of my time, and because it's an 'artsy' job, it does take up a lot of the 'creative juice'. Having the time and space to simply focus on writing music, without having to worry about my job, or housework, or even eating (all our meals are provided) has opened the floodgates, and I'm very happy about it!

In session with the Princeton Singers
The first session with the Princeton Singers was a really valuable experience, and it's great to think that there are only going to be more of them! This session had 10 pieces workshop out of the 19, one of which was in fact mine. The main things that came up with my own work was a small three-bar area of the piece in which I was unsure of what I wanted to happen dynamically. In my head I had two options: A huge dramatic crescendo with a sudden drop to very quiet, or diminuendo over several bars. Dr Sametz then gave me a third option of elongating the diminuendo over a longer amount of bars. As of the end of the session (and whilst writing this), I'm still undecided as to what I want to do, but what was great was having the choir available to demonstrate all the options so I could hear what I could potentially do. It's much easier to really think about what is best for the piece when you can hear the real colours of the choir (and not crappy Sibelius MIDI sounds!). I was also delighted that, after this first reading both the tenor and the soprano soloist (who will sing in my piece) came over to me to tell me how much they like my piece. I've always said, I want to write music that a) I would like to listen to and perform, and b) other people would like to listen to and perform.
If you run out of music stands, a lectern will do!
I suppose that's why I lean towards
melody and harmony (aka, 'chord porn'), because those elements, for me at least, are the most satisfying to both hear and perform. The other 9 pieces that were presented in this session came in various degrees of completion. We had some that were nearer to my stage of completion (maybe about 2-3minutes of music for example), and some were, there was just one page, consisting of a few bars of music. Shiuan Chung's piece consisted of one page of graphic notation, which contained only a few bars for the singers to perform. A really interesting concept to listen to, with some fascinating vocal sounds created - however, I do wonder, after hearing him talk about the piece, whether this might be a bit ambitious to get finished in this short space of time! Two pieces that stuck out for me as really enjoyable (at least at this stage), were Barry Sharp's piece "Blackend Eyes", in which he makes amazing use of chromatic movement and overtone singing (something I've started exploring myself), and Michael Fairbairn's "I will come to you". Michael's piece in particular was just stunningly beautiful (even with only the two pages he has so far), and features an amazing low Db by the Basses - absolute chord porn of the highest esteem - Michael, I salute you!

Now that we're settled into the forum, the social aspect of it all is starting to develop more. I myself had a great time frequenting Molly's Irish Bar with Peter Dayton between our one-to-ones and dinnertime, a drink at Sotto Santi with a few more of the composers, and then finally a late night chill out with some of the Princeton Singers in one of their room suites after an invite from one of the tenors. It's great that, like Charlotte New Music Festival last year, the performers are rooming with us composers. What this does is essentially breakdown the barrier of 'us' and 'them', and creates a better sense of a personal-professional relationship. And also, these guys are really nice, funny, friendly people who have an immense stash of scotch - what's not to like! All in all, a supremely successful day! Time is plowing on with this forum, and there's still lots to do! Best get cracking!

Corey Hable and myself, taking the time to enjoy the Pennsylvanian sunshine 

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