All posts by David Archer

Recording: “In Sweet Music” Choral Premiere

Here’s the live concert recording of In Sweet Music! DaCapo Chamber Choir (Leonard Enns, director) gave the premiere performances of this piece on March 5 and 6, 2016, in Kitchener-Waterloo. (Read my earlier post for info.)

This recording was captured on March 6 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Waterloo as part of an all-Shakespeare concert called “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind.” In Sweet Music was the winner of DaCapo Chamber Choir’s 2015 NewWorks competition, and I was there to hear the premiere!

Len and the choir did so many great things with this but I think my favourite part of this recording is the last section: “Fall asleep, or hearing, die.”

Enjoy the recording below, or click here to listen along with the score.

We Are All Collaborators

“This is about as glamorous as it gets for a choral composer – flying to another city to hear a premiere.”

I said something like this while introducing “In Sweet Music” during the concerts last weekend in Kitchener-Waterloo. Leonard Enns led DaCapo Chamber Choir in the premiere of this new a cappella work for mixed voices, which won DaCapo’s Canada-wide NewWorks composition competition in 2015. I was there to hear the result in person, and the two beautiful and nuanced performances made the visit so worthwhile!

St. John Church
Our first concert venue: The Church of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener

The trip from Vancouver was a whirlwind – I love visiting new places and there were so many wonderful experiences and people to meet here. Between rehearsal with Leonard Enns and the choir, two concerts, brunch with politicians and key funders of the choir, reconnecting with an old friend, and having the special bonus of watching Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan lead his own music in rehearsal, there was also a little time to explore Waterloo, which seems to be filled with creative energy and community spirit.

Observing rehearsal led by Sir James MacMillan
Sir James MacMillan happened to be in town leading a dress rehearsal of his own music

It’s a mental game

Composing often feels like an individual task but a group effort. The labour of writing happens alone at my desk, on the bus, out walking, or with a cup of coffee somewhere. It usually takes a long time to see or hear the live results of my work. In this case, 13 months passed from inception to first performance, and I’m still getting used to this ultra-delayed gratification. Writing is a mental game, and life happens in all the spaces in between.

It would be impossible to write anything meaningful without the emotional and more tangible support of a wide community of friends and family. Sometimes this arrives as empathy and encouragement, much-needed advice, or a timely favour. Occasionally support arrives in dollars as a commission or purchase, and that works too!

And then there are my fellow musicians – the directors and performers who actually do the hard work of bringing the music to life. In this grand scheme a composer’s job seems quite small, relying upon a huge network, which for me now includes some very kind choristers and others in KW.

Waterloo houses
A walk in Waterloo

You’re each a strand of the network that keeps me going, and I’m grateful. Not only in the “you’re all an inspiration to me” sense but also a “this really could not happen without tangible support from a healthy group of humans around me” sense. 

In short, keep enabling the composers and artists in your lives – you never know what could happen.

We are all collaborators.

Conductors: Want to read the award-winning score to “In Sweet Music”? Download a sample copy. (SATB, some divisi, ~5′, designed for chamber choir) I hope to have an archival recording available soon.

Leonard Enns
With director Leonard Enns (right), after the final concert with DaCapo Chamber Choir

You Are Not Alone, Not Even In High School

Pop quiz: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Grade 10?

Answer: If you said braces, acne, or awkward dancing… yeah, we probably have something in common.

I’ve never been to a high school reunion, having lived away from my hometown of Red Deer, Alberta for a long time. But recently, I carpe diemed the chance to ponder my teenage days of yore while writing music for choirs at my former high school, Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. That’s “Comp,” “Thurber,” or “LTCHS” for short. Try to say “LTCHS” fast – you’ll sound like me with my retainer in.

This is just a thing that is happening

If your high school memories also include chronic illness, we’ve got something else in common. After a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis at age 12, and technically not completing Grade 8, I spent the following years feeling exhausted and confused about what the future would bring. My days at Comp were an odd collection of ambition and lethargy, vitality and frailty, optimism and fear. As the “sick child” – a grade ahead of everyone else but too ill to attend classes regularly – my longings to be a normal student (whatever I thought that was) were a unicorn-like fantasy. My full recovery from CFS a few years after graduating was just as confusing and unpredictable, but in reverse.

This was a defining period for me in many ways – I learned to explain to people what was wrong with me while pretending that things were just fine.

No one could really understand what I was going through, even when they actually wanted to.

Composer desk
Notes and sketches from “Fly On,” January 2016.

Dedicated to the misunderstood

The new piece I wrote is called “Fly On”, for SAB voices + piano. Here’s the text:

All shall be well.

We are prairie wind
Lifting ghosts of voices past
Over shadow plain

We are ocean rain
Sailing down to earth
Seeds of light cascade

Fly on, fly on, fly on,
Oh soaring light.
Fly on, fly on, fly on,
Oh pale blue dot,
Fly on.

All shall be well.

How’s this for perspective?

I used two references to other writers in the poem. Julian of Norwich wrote the words “all shall be well” way back in 14th-century England. Her book “Revelations of Divine Love” is possibly the first book written in the English language by a woman.

The “pale blue dot” is a reference to Carl Sagan’s description of a photograph taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990. The photo shows the Earth as one tiny pixel against the vastness of deep space in a perspective from 6 billion kilometres away.

Pale Blue Dot
“Pale Blue Dot” (The Earth is displayed at centre-right.)

Composers and stories are among you

We see each other best through our stories. Choirs unite from within through the music they sing and struggle through. And sometimes, when things are just right, music heals, helping us understand ourselves a tiny bit better.

Huge thanks to the Lindsay Thurber Music Parents Association, and my friends and former classmates Sara and Lisa, without whom this project would not have been possible.

Students in Red Deer, you’re not alone.

Lisa Friesen will conduct the first performance of “Fly On” in Red Deer with LTCHS Chamber Choir and Ladies Choir on June 9, 2016.

Fly On the wall
Fly On the wall

The Centre of the Universe Sounds Like This

Music and space.
Telescopes and art.
Science and choir.
Scenery and stars.

Vox in the Stars – A Choral Concert

The air feels alive, moving just quickly enough to remind you of the outdoors. The dome opens to fresh twilight, stars appear, and music fills the space. The huge telescope stands stoically beside the audience, the only instrument not making a sound. Harmony and melody form endless combinations as the voices change.

Vox Humana Chamber Choir (Brian Wismath, director) will perform the award-winning Flame and Shadow as part of their annual Vox in the Stars concerts next month! It all happens at the Observatory Dome just outside of Victoria on September 18 and 20. Vox in the Stars is an annual event, and always amazing.

This is the third year I’ve been a part of these concerts as a composer – 2013 saw the premiere of The Heart of Night, and 2014’s concert featured Compassio. This year’s concert brings Flame and Shadow to life in this inspiring venue at the NRC Centre of the Universe.

Alone in the night on a dark hill
With pines around me spicy and still,

And a heaven full of stars over my head
White and topaz and misty red; …

Vox in the Stars Collage
Photos from the 2013 Vox in the Stars concert.

… Myriads with beating hearts of fire
That aeons cannot vex or tire;

Up the dome of heaven like a great hill
I watch them marching, stately and still,

And I know that I am honored to be
Witness of so much majesty.

– “Stars”, poetry by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), and text for Flame and Shadow

At the Centre of the Universe

With a name like that, it’s got to be impressive, right? The Observatory Dome is a cathedral-meets-sci-fi-set on a hill where real astronomers have worked since 1918. A National Historic Site of Canada, it sits in a gorgeous location overlooking both Elk and Prospect Lakes on Vancouver Island.

It’s easy to imagine the sound escaping upward through the slit in the dome, as though the huge Plaskett Telescope could direct it back out to the universe, and to friends in all places. Music and stars are two things that give me joy; to bring them together is an inspiration.

Hear It For Yourself

There are only 90 tickets available for each show (it’s a dome, not a hall!), so you’ll need to order in advance.

Click here for tickets.

Click to listen to Vox sing The Heart of Night at the Centre of the Universe in 2013.

ps – I promised myself I’d get to the end of this post without using the word “stellar”.

Travel, Premiere, Prize: It’s Been A Big Month

Sometimes good news comes in threes. Since my last post, I’ve travelled to Washington D.C. and New York, heard a choral premiere, and learned some exciting news. First, the news.

In Sweet Music Wins NewWorks Competition!

DaCapoFinal-copyPC1-300x113DaCapo Chamber Choir selected my new choral piece, In Sweet Musicas the winner of their 2015 NewWorks composition competition! DaCapo is based in Kitchener-Waterloo and directed by Leonard Enns. The choir’s focus is on music written in the last 100 years, and especially Canadian music, which is great news for us composers! The results of the competition were decided by a jury of choral conductors from across Canada, who also awarded an honourable mention to Martin Fairbank of Dorval, QC for his piece How Sweet the Moonlight.

In Sweet Music is an SATB setting of some poetry about the legend of Orpheus from Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII. Here’s part of my written description:

The power of music is really hard to talk about. Shakespeare’s Orpheus poem inspired me to think about how music and inspiration affects me and the people I care about. I hope and imagine that music has the power to change our lives by creating vulnerable experiences together. In this way music helps us have empathy for one another, and this piece is kind of an ode to music.

Music director Leonard Enns had this to say:

“It’s a wonderful, challenging and complex piece, and promises to be wholly satisfying for performers and listeners.  I know it will be deeply rewarding for the choir and the audience.”

You can read more about the choir, the competition, and the piece on DaCapo’s website. I look forward to hearing the premiere performance of In Sweet Music in Kitchener-Waterloo in March 2016!

Flame and Shadow Premiere in Washington D.C.

My wife Heidi and I recently traveled to the East Coast for a much-needed vacation, but also to hear the Six Degree Singers, a community choir in Washington D.C. Director Rachel Carlson led SDS in the first-ever performance of Flame and Shadow (SATB) on May 30. Flame and Shadow won the choir’s composer’s competition earlier this year. It was so rewarding to visit D.C., hear the music, meet everyone, and see the sights!

WashDC Collage


Music Moves In Mysterious Ways

Sometimes people ask what it’s like to hear music I’ve written performed live. I’ll usually say that it’s humbling, that it’s inspiring, and that it’s surreal. And all those things are true.

But the performance in D.C. affected me in a different way – I had written Flame and Shadow during a difficult emotional time last summer, and hearing the choir sing the words “alone in the night” at the end of the piece reminded me of some very dark days. But to hear the sound of the voices turned the whole experience on its head – the joy of music brought the pain into a different context, and as cliche as it may sound, it was kind of like darkness becoming light, expressed in safety, in confidence, and in gratitude. It was a powerful experience.

Thank you all for your support, your emails, and for reading. Drop me a line and let me know how your summer’s going!  I hope to write some more words and music before too long.