Pie-in-the-Skype

Today I had what must be one of the top ten coolest musical experiences in my 30ish years of life: From my home in Pennsylvania, by videoconferencing on Skype, I joined a rehearsal of the Western Michigan University Chorale (Dr. Kimberly Dunn Adams, conductor) in Kalamazoo, MI.  They were rehearsing my piece Love, thricewise for a concert coming up on Sunday.

From the comfort of my desk chair, in my bare feet and with the sun streaming through my windows on a gorgeous spring day, I participated in a rehearsal of my music that was taking place over 600 miles away.

I’ve used Skype a zillion times in the past; what was new for me today was using it to help me shape the creation of art with fellow artists.  I was able to listen into a choral rehearsal, give feedback and suggestions, and see them implemented right away.  And I was also able to field a couple of questions from the singers about me and the piece’s genesis.  It worked incredibly well, even given my laptop’s lackluster sound card and sound quality.

All of the foregoing awesomeness wasn’t even the best part of the whole scenario, though.  The best part was that the WMU Chorale absolutely hit my piece out of the park.  I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the ensemble and to Kim Adams for bringing my music to life so beautifully.

While hearing the rehearsal live and in person would obviously have been my pie-in-the-sky, I was perfectly happy to settle for pie-in-the-Skype.  But if anyone reading this happens to be in or near Kalamazoo on Sunday, April 15, go (in person, of course) to the First Presbyterian Church at 5:00 P.M. and prepare to have your socks knocked off.   The WMU Chorale nearly brought me to tears over Skype; I can’t imagine how good hearing them live must be.

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Ensemble Companio: Why I started a new choir

I’ve been an absolutely horrible blogger lately. There have been a lot of things going on, though, and blogging finds itself continually pushed down the “must-do” list until it reaches the “boy-I’d-sure-like-to-do” list.

Just for a moment, I’m bumping it back up, though, because I want to write regarding an exciting and deeply fulfilling new musical endeavor I’m involved in.

While I have continued to keep busy composing (I am composer-in-residence this season for New-York-City ensemble Choral Chameleon) and teaching music theory to non-majors as an adjunct at Temple, as well as being a husband and father, another pursuit has elbowed its way into my schedule: I have started my own choir, a 21-voice group I’ve named Ensemble Companio.

To make it even more logistically challenging, I did it using singers who live all over the eastern seaboard. We have members from Washington D.C., Cape Cod, upstate New York, and many places in between. We travel and convene one weekend a month in various locales in the northeast to rehearse. For a time our only financial resources came from dues collected by the membership; the group is still functioning on a shoestring budget, as I imagine most new ensembles do in their first year of existence.

I don’t wish to bore you with matters of logistics and finance, though–what I really want to talk about is why I started Ensemble Companio.

In early 2009, I attended a national conference of the American Choral Directors’ Association. Such conferences always feature performances of choirs from all over the nation and all over the world. Two of the choirs on the international concert session that year–a women’s choir from Venezuela, the Cantoría Alberto Grau; and a mixed group from South Korea, the Incheon City Chorale–absolutely blew me away.

The Venezuelans brought me to tears. Please realize–I hear a *lot* of choirs–and this reaction is very unusual for me. Ultimately, I realized this performance was different because 1) the singers performed with such joy and pleasure in what they were doing that it was impossible not to be moved; 2) they opened their hearts and made themselves completely vulnerable while performing, and 3) even if they weren’t consciously thinking about it, they were clearly taking great pride in communicating something about what it means to be Venezuelan through their repertoire, which they thoroughly and authentically owned and communicated in performance.

My reaction to the Koreans wasn’t much different. They had some of the most well-trained and mature voices I’ve ever heard in a choir, and where the Venezuelans had an easygoing, infectiously joyful feel on stage, the Koreans displayed a discipline that could rival a team of Navy Seals. It’s not that they didn’t have fun–they did–but you could tell they had practiced so much and so consistently that performing was second-nature to them. They, too, took great pleasure in singing repertoire from their home country, and did so with pride and joy. They sounded and looked like a million bucks.

I left that concert deeply touched, wanting to go back to Venezuela and South Korea, both places I’d been lucky enough to travel in college. Somehow, these choirs had built an interpersonal and intercultural bridge with me, and I left feeling that the world was slightly smaller that day.

Moreover, I left the whole conference a day later wondering why the #$%^ I’d almost never seen an American choir pull off anything similar. Sure, we had choirs with loads of technical polish, and we had some very disciplined choirs too, but where was the *soul?* Where was that completely authentic and true connection with the listener that unlocks the heart like the Venezuelans and Koreans did? Why had I rarely been so moved by an American choir? (Gospel groups were one notable exception — they get me every time.) And even if there were an American choir capable of such direct and heartfelt communication, of what could they have sung back then with pride? (Remember, at that time, America’s image abroad was still nearly completely in tatters, and the economy was in the tank.) It made me sad, and almost angry–as though we as Americans were culturally poorer for not having a choir that could routinely speak authentically with the voice of its people and history.

Eventually I came to realize that it might be part of my calling to make such a choir happen. I would like to make Ensemble Companio be that choir. I want us to be not just musically spectacular and completely disciplined, but also able to get up there and somehow authentically speak to people, American or not. I will strive to make Ensemble Companio be ambassadors and advocates of choral singing and choral music, of music in general and the good it can do for people, and for the arts overall. Someday, perhaps we will be lucky enough to travel internationally, and if so, we will need to be ambassadors of the good things about the USA and its history and culture, connect to those somehow, and figure out how to authentically tap into them and communicate them without cheap flag-waving and blind patriotism (which do not interest me in the slightest). Even for audiences here in the US, I think this is an important thing to consider as we plan future concerts. There’s a lot of confusion about just what America does/should stand for these days, and what is good about us as a country is becoming (in my view) increasingly obscured. I think that, like the Venezuelan and Korean choirs I saw, we could someday tap into the purest and best things about our country and its culture(s), and communicate those.

We had our debut concert back in March in New Canaan, CT, with music from across the centuries and around the world on the theme of greetings and farewells. It was a wonderful success, in all ways: we raised more than enough money to cover our expenses, we performed very well, and the audience responded immediately with a standing ovation after our last number. We will be repeating this program on Sunday, May 6 at 4:30 P.M. in Bayonne, NJ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church. If you happen to be in the area then, we would welcome you to come hear us sing.