Thoughts on the Music
At the outset, I'd like to address the issue of the metronome markings given with
the majority of my published scores. I intend these markings to be carefully considered,
but at the same time, each choir, each acoustic, each performance is its own animal,
and one tempo can never address all the variables. When I conduct my own work the
tempi are not always what the score suggests, and in some cases I've come to feel
that the score is, plain and simple, not quite right. Nonetheless, I continue to
supply metronome markings as they at least show how I was thinking about the piece
at a given time, and as such will supply conductors with a short cut to exploring
their own thoughts. The crucial thing to remember is that the music must always
dance, and that the slower the dance, the more in tune you must be with the pulse
of the energy.
With Barbara Clark...
Keeping Them Interested
I wanted to avoid the situation where three quarters of the choir waits while you
go over and over some harmony part. Meantime the sopranos, who traditionally get
the melody, have picked their part up right away, and are now bored out of their
minds. There are many variations on this scenario, but they all result in boredom
for one part of the choir and frustration for another. And after all, it is hard
to remember - or be interested in - a part whose only function is to harmonize the
melody. I thought the singers would pick up their parts most easily, and not mind
repeating them many times if need be, if every part had melodic and rhythmic interest.
This is why all my pieces are polyphonic, even when the resulting texture may sound
homophonic. My goal is to give every part a melodic line, and to stop the common
perception (among sopranos in particular) that sopranos are the first class citizens
of the choir. I take particular care that the altos get lots of spotlight, since
in my experience they are the section most likely to be passed over by composer
and audience alike.
...and Mark Sirett. Unshaven, unwashed, changing cars at a
Tim Hortons outside Ottawa. All hail, the True North.
Culture and Multi-Culture
I am most known for the multicultural elements in my music, and certainly the majority
of my published pieces are influenced, directly or indirectly, by musical cultures
from around the world. When I was writing for my new choir it made sense to draw
on these influences, since my students were listening to Paul Simon's Graceland
Peter Gabriel's Last Temptation of Christ,
and following Sting's advocacy
for the peoples of the Amazon rainforest. What we've come to call "world music"
was very much on their minds.
Most importantly, if I were to keep my singers interested, I had to find a speedy
way to build group morale, and to give them a positive sense of belonging to a tribe.
By tribe I mean a group where a person feels his/her individual worth enhanced,
rather than suppressed, by being a part of the collective. My polyphonic approach,
as well as all the call-and-response I use, is intended to allow the singers to
feel very strongly how their part works interdependently with the other sections,
and to be very aware of how important their part is in creating the whole. The sections
continually trade parts so that they get a chance to hear how their part sounds
when another section sings it, even as they take over and make their own a part
that they heard someone else sing before. Again, I want each section of the choir
to be aware of how at any given moment they are making a vital contribution to the
overall sound, while also being aware of what the other sections are contributing.
"World music" (I feel the need to keep that term in quotes) so often depends
on the antiphonal sharing of ostinati that I think it's ideal for developing a positive,
tribal sense within the choir. Ditto for the Baroque-ish, contrapuntal influence
that in one way or another crops up in most of my work.
Aliqua prepares to hit the stage.
I like to think that my music has a strong spiritual element. Not religious as such
- for me, religion and spirituality are two different things (although they can
certainly coincide). I'm not religious; I pledge allegiance to no creed. But I think
all artists use the human senses to break through to a world that can't be apprehended
by the senses alone, and in that sense I think that all art is profoundly spiritual.
And music, by the very absence of anything to touch or see, is often held to be
the most spiritual of all, and the art form best suited to lead us into a dimension
beyond our own. Perhaps this is why Einstein claimed his theories of relativity
were conceived through and because of his interest in music.
I have incorporated the sacred music of many different cultures in my work, but
I am hoping that a certain transcendence is present in all my pieces, however secular,
however joyous, however sad. Ironically, although I belong to no church I find myself
wading into debates as a passionate advocate of retaining sacred texts in the choral
repertoire (at the same time having no patience for a director who keeps a secular
choir on a steady diet of pieces where Jesus - or anybody - saves). But I think
that music is inherently spiritual, and recent attempts to sacrifice that spirituality
on the altar of political correctness is profoundly wrong. Turning God into a taboo
subject is misguided, dangerous, and anti-educational. Singing the Hallelujah Chorus
no more brainwashes us into joining the Church of England than playing Rolf in a
production of The Sound of Music
turns us into a Nazi. Parents cheerfully
watch their children play all sorts of unsavoury characters in the school musical
- but have the choir sing a spiritual, and everybody fears the worst. My solution
is to program spiritual music from many cultures and many faiths. I know this won't
please everybody, but after all, nothing will.
Berks Classical Children's Chorus: Dail Richie, Executive Director.
Photo: Bill Coughlin
The Junior Amabile Singers in concert: a wonderful ensemble to conduct (can you tell?).
This page features pictures of the Amabile family for good reason, given all that
they did to further my career.
The Amabile Young Women's Ensemble, just before showtime. The Amabile family
of choirs, especially the original ensemble "Amabile Youth Singers", was critical
to getting me onto record and into print. Conductor John Barron was the first
person to commission me.
How It Started
I was teaching in a high school that did not have a choral tradition. When we started
to put a choir together I was lucky enough to have a good turn-out, but there weren't
funds for buying music for such a big group. I began to generate my own materials
in the hopes of keeping this windfall of singers interested. I had the challenge
shared by many choir directors of needing to gratify students who already had musical
training (some who could sight read better than I ever will), as well as students
with no experience at all - and since this was only an extra-curricular activity,
there was no time to teach them to read notation. The characteristics of my writing
style were formed directly by looking for ways to meet those challenges.
Young men of Amabile. The tradition continues.
A Cappella Singing
All choral directors know that getting a new choir to sing in tune can't happen
overnight. It takes time to build the good breathing habits, the good listening
habits; and even if the individual singers are experienced, it will take them time
to get used to each other before that choral ESP can work its magic. When the singers
are new to their craft, it's that much tougher. One of my solutions is to stress
a cappella singing. When there is no piano the singers can hear each other better,
and they don't use the piano's tuning as a crutch - that's especially important
since the tempered scale of the piano isn't always a good match for the tuning you
need with voices, where an F# rising to a G is not
the same note as a Gflat
descending to an F. Not that a cappella
singing is any instant remedy for
tuning problems, because a green choir singing without accompaniment will choose
the most inopportune times to explore hitherto uncharted regions of polytonality.
I remember taking a first year choir to a festival where the adjudicator dourly
remarked that it would be a plus if they started and ended in the same key. But
if you're going to ride a bike, you can't lean on the training wheels; and if you're
going to sing in tune, you can't lean on the piano. (I confess myself weary with
the style of a lot of piano accompaniments, and when I do use piano, I try to give
it a part that furthers the imagery of the text. So in When I Was In My Prime
the inverted pedal tones suggest the slow teardrops of the text, and in Two Minutes
the piano line hypnotically circles around the soul classic
In The Midnight Hour
I find the polyphonic approach helps with tuning as well. If you're singing a line
that makes melodic sense, then you're not stuck with the awkward jumps and hard-to-tune
voice leadings that come with a part that is more concerned with filling in a harmony
than with making a musical line. I also like to cross the voices, especially the
alto and soprano. In many of my pieces the altos spend some time higher than the
sopranos, both in the interest of the sections using their full range, but also
in the hopes of fighting "soprano ear" - that malady that renders many
a soprano helpless as soon as s/he isn't on top of the texture.
Fear of Feel-Good
There were a lot of sophisticated kids in that big new choir of mine, and I'd have
felt ridiculous handing out the sort of platitudinous everybody- get-together-and-climb-every-mountain
repertoire that has long been a staple of choral programs. Let me acknowledge right
away that I know myself to be at odds with many people whose taste I do not mean
to disparage. Diversity of opinion in the musical community is a must, and I realize
that the sort of feel-good anthem that makes me cringe is exactly what so many audiences
love to hear. All I can say is that cringe I do. It's not that I think choral music
shouldn't be inspirational - not at all! - but I fervently wish to present an alternative
to the kind of choral literature that, to my ears anyway, never gets beyond the
level of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. So much music is, however good its intentions,
so trite, so bland, so milky safe. (I really don't mean to sound like a total snot
about this - but I tell you, lads and lasses, I'd be embarrassed to sing a lot of
the pieces I hear, and I think a lot of the singers are too.)
I hope to present an alternative approach to inspirational content, one that incorporates
a broader emotional spectrum and does not condescend to singers or audience. I think
my music tends to have more grit and friction than most choral music in this genre,
more of an examination of the dark places we must all work through en route to the
The Peterborough Children’s Chorus Youth Choir
directed by Maureen Harris-Lowe
I mention the rhythmic aspect of my music last because it encapsulates many of the
things I've already discussed - the emotional, spiritual, tribal experience of singing
in a choir. The legendary pianist Gerald Moore wrote that rhythm is the lifeblood
of music, and so it pleases me that my use of rhythm is what people comment on the
most. Certainly this is where "world music" has deeply influenced me:
I found a strong appeal to rhythm was crucial in motivating my singers, and remains
a continual source of inspiration to me as a composer.
For a director who contemplates trying one of my pieces, my use of rhythm can be
both the biggest plus and the biggest problem. The enormous plus is that a powerful
rhythm does motivate singers, and nourishes their overall musicianship. It helps
them to feel the music in their body, which is crucial since a choir's quest for
correctness often leads to what I call singing from the neck up - lots of brain,
but not enough soul, not enough guts. When I include body percussion in my charts,
such as handclaps, footstomps and fingersnaps, I am hoping it will encourage the
singers to feel the rhythms with their body, which in turn will strengthen their
singing. This brings me to the downside of my use of rhythm: somehow the combination
of our western culture and our musical training does not instill much of a rhythmic
sense in us, and it can be surprisingly difficult to get a choir into an ensemble
groove. When presented with some of my charts, choirs that are not used to feeling
a groove can take up a lot of rehearsal time trying to make it happen - and rehearsal
time is always in short supply.
Another difficulty is that while my rhythms are not at all complicated in the way
of Bartok or Stravinsky - I use a lot of brief ostinati with a regular metrical
sense - these rhythms, inspired by oral cultures, can look complex and awkward when
put into notation. It's not so bad once you get the rhythms off the page and into
your body, but the process of getting it off the page can take some time for a choir
unaccustomed to my approach. (Not that it's "my" approach - I'm hardly
the only composer interested in rhythm.) I think the rhythmic aspect is the reason
why some of my pieces have a reputation for being harder than they are. Although
many of my pieces were commissioned by advanced choirs who wanted a showstopper,
I always try to write in a way that is "user friendly" to the conductor
and singers. In fact, many of the riffs and textures in my advanced pieces were
originally tried out with a first year choir - although since this was not a "reading
choir", the riffs were taught by ear, bypassing the scary appearance that many
oral rhythms have on the page.
I am fortunate that several of my pieces have been recorded, because when a director
or a choir hears a good performance of the Hatfield piece they are trying to learn,
it gives them a huge head start. They realize that even if it took a forbidding
clutter of syncopations to notate the rhythms, to the ear they sound quite natural.
Run Children Run
is a perfect example of this. You may want to check out
the list of recordings
included on this website. And if you're having troubles with a piece, feel free
for advice - which with any luck I'll be able to supply.
When I went to Hrádec Kralové for the Czech Choir Festival
premiere of my new Missa Brevis (Missa Primavera: Our Lady of the Spring
I was thrilled to see posters for the concert all over the city.