Thoughts on the Music


Metronome Markings
 
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.

Barbara Clark
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.
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Mark Sirett
...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.
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Aliqua prepares to hit the stage. Aliqua Treble Ensemble

Spirituality

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.
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Berks Classical Children's Chorus: Dail Richie, Executive Director.
Photo: Bill Coughlin
Berks Classical Children's Chorus

















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 Before Sleep 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.
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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 light.
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The Peterborough Children’s Chorus Youth Choir
directed by Maureen Harris-Lowe


Rhythm

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 that is included on this website. And if you're having troubles with a piece, feel free to e-mail me for advice - which with any luck I'll be able to supply.
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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.