All-day singings & conventions New compositions

Composium at the Seattle convention

Kevin Barrans organized a “composium,” a singing of new compositions or newly unearthed old compositions, at the Seattle convention on Saturday afternoon. A little over fifty singers attended the composium, and the class sounded amazing, especially considering the singers were sight-singing, and considering that some of the new tunes were quite challenging.

I was able to attend an hour and a quarter of the composium, and enjoyed hearing 16 excellent tunes. Here are brief mentions of the tunes I heard, in alphabetical order:

Chase Arevalo presented “Oly,” a tune in Aeolian mode on a text written by him, with a challenging fuguing section with unusual harmonies. Kevin Barrans presented “Silver Bay,” a nice swinging tune in 6/8 that was reminiscent of so-called “folk hymns.” Caleb Hardy presented two tunes: “Dowland” was an AABA major tune, on a text by Isaac Watts, that felt like a twenty-first century update of late nineteenth century tunes; “Everlasting Song,” a long fuguing tune of ambiguous tonality, hearkened back to some of the more challenging experiments of the First New England School.

E. E. Hardy presented two tunes: “Mather,” a nice singable tune in G major, felt like a cross between Lowell Mason and B. F. White, with Mason-like harmonies and White-like melodic lines; “Jubilee Trumpet” was a long fuguing tune, and I thought the fuguing entrances were particularly well done. Steve Helwig presented two tunes: “Buckley” had a Cooper-book feel to it, and traded off fun duets between the trebles and tenors, and the basses and altos; “Old Town” was a nice plain tune that started off in minor and wound up in major, which reminded me of some of the experiments in ambiguous hymn tune endings in the work of such contemporary hymn composers as John L. Bell.

Deidra Montgomery presented two tunes: “Ursina” was a delightful plain tune that was deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable to sing; “Mechanicville,” which I have sung a couple of times before, was even more fun to sing a third time, with its well-constructed and musically interesting fuguing section. Deidra’s tunes are not only musically interesting, her composing seem to me to show a great sensitivity to the human voice. Bob Schinske presented “Now Thank We All Our God,” a plain tune on a text with the unusual meter of Dan Thoma presented “Fremont,” a G minor plain tune in 3/4 with some interesting rhythmic moments, a tune that felt solidly in the Denson book tradition.

Karen Willard presented two tunes: “Harvest Hymn,” her sensitive and enjoyable arrangement of a tune by Jeremiah Ingalls, with a text from the Millennial Harp, and I found myself wanting to sing both text and tune more than once; “Glory Glory” was her arrangement of “Weeping Mary,” informed by sensitive scholarship, and with a very singable arrangement — once again, a tune I found myself wanting to sing again and again. David Wright, an experienced composer with a couple of tunes in the new edition of the Cooper book, presented “Wilson,” an excellent 6/4 major tune, another tune I wanted to sing again. He also presented what I gathered was an older tune, “I Am a Stranger Here Below.”

For my part, I presented two tunes: “God’s Mighty Word,” which I had previously brought to the Berkeley weekly singing, and “Fairhaven,” a tune that I finished writing on Thursday.

The fifty or so singers at the composium could make anything sound good, so I’m not sure what kind of revision Fairhaven needs; I’ll have to bring it to a local singing sometime.

One final note:

The appearance of a score, the calligraphy as it were, makes a great deal of difference. Karen Willard’s scores are always a joy to read, because of the amazingly high level of craftsmanship in her calligraphy: every detail of the score, from the spacing of the bars, to the placement of the text, to the actual design of the musical font she uses, is beautiful and legible. Karen should be an example to the rest of us.

The composer Ned Rorem, during his apprenticeship to Virgil Thompson, copied endless scores and in the process learned a great deal about what makes a good score: “In mastering the art of calligraphy a young musician becomes answerable for every note among millions, for the need for clarity on the page (because music, before it can be heard, must be visibly communicable)…” [Knowing When To Stop, p. 220]. No wonder Karen’s scores are so beautiful: she did all the calligraphy for the entire Cooper book, and for the American Christmas Harp; and what better way to learn one’s craft than by typesetting millions of notes of other people’s music? I am still in my apprenticeship, and I regularly copy the music of other composers, both to learn how they put their tunes together, and to learn how to make a score that is immediately and clearly “visibly communicable.”

It doesn’t matter whether we can afford a high-end musical typesetting program, or whether we write out our scores by hand: it is incumbent on all of us who aspire to compose in the Sacred Harp tradition to learn good musical calligraphy. Again, Karen Willard should be an example that the rest of us attempt to live up to.

One reply on “Composium at the Seattle convention”

Wow, comprehensive notes! Sorry I had to miss this – the songs I recognize are all wonderful, the new tunes as well as Harvest Hymn and I am a Stranger Here Below.

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