Borealis choir makes a mashup of music and politics with new works

Do you take politicians at their word? How about songwriters and poets?

As writer David Dark likes to remind me, “Poetry is the real fake news.” If poetry and music build worlds of metaphor, while political words describe some parallel (darker?) version of reality, what would happen if composers used political words as poetry? Buckle up. Words matter in this age of instant reactions, outrage, and #alternativefacts. It’s important that we take time to examine them with respect – and, of course, with new music.

If you’re nodding right now, Politicoro is a concert and a creative concept built just for you. Director Ben Ewert will lead Edmonton’s Borealis choir in performances of politically charged early music and new choral pieces by Canadian composers on February 8, 2017.

[Click here to get tickets for Borealis’ Politicoro concert in Edmonton on February 8, 2017.]

Ben Ewert, director of Borealis choir and DMus student at University of Alberta

Ben Ewert is currently a doctoral student (DMus) in choral conducting at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he and his wife Krista live with their three kids. Ben and his family have also spent a few years in Vancouver, where he directed Oculus Chamber Choir, a group devoted to sacred choral music, based at St. James Anglican Church. In 2014, Ben led that choir in the premiere of my “De Profundis” during a concert of laments reaching back as far back in time as Tomás Luis de Victoria’s 16th-century Spain.

Looking ahead to this month’s concert, the two of us sat down to talk about the Politicoro concept, the concert, the composers, and the unpredictability of commissioning pieces to fit a unique program.

Politicoro: An interactive public forum

“Overall, the evening is about how choral music can interact in the political sphere, with most of the emphasis being on politicians’ words set to music,” Ben said.

This event is more than a concert. Borealis will ditch the standard sing/break/sing format to create a unique, casual event featuring choral performances, speaking, time to gab, drinks and appies, and chats with composers (I’ll be there via Skype from Vancouver).

Why such a different format? It’s all about conversation.

Politicoro will be “an interactive event between choir, composer and audience aimed at examining the lasting effect of words in the public forum.”

To this end, Ben has asked composers to set the words of politicians to music, as I’ve done with my new piece “warehouse of souls” – a cappella music for SATB voices inspired in part by a recent trip to Athens and Lesvos in Greece. I used some Greek text I borrowed from some new friends I met through the University of the Aegean (long story, maybe another time) and also a collection of phrases borrowed from public figures who have commented on the global refugee and migrant crisis.

The choir will begin its performance by singing “other choral works written in the heat of political upheaval,” including music by Thomas Tallis and WIlliam Byrd. These two Catholic composers struggled through the transition to a Protestant government, enduring the strain between their convictions and their court positions. The audience will be reminded that making music amid political strife is nothing new.

“I was searching for early music that had a political connotation or that was written in a politically unstable time with traceable elements that you could actually point to as evidence that it was written with a political thought in mind,” Ben said.

Politicoro concert in Edmonton

What sparked the Politicoro idea and why is it important?

“Words are powerful,” he says. Political language is often carefully crafted, but its effects aren’t always easily known. Ben mentioned Robert Fisk’s book, Great War for Civilization, as an important influence. Fisk has been a correspondent living in Lebanon for over thirty years, and has written extensively about how the policies in the West affect the Middle East. Ben says that Fisk showed him “how words spoken in the Western countries translate into physical action in the Middle East. It really impressed upon me the value of words. And for myself – as a Christian – I’ve been raised to really be aware of the words I’m saying, and the effect that they have. There’s a theme through scripture that whatever comes out of your mouth can reflect what’s really going on inside of you whether you are honest or not.”

Ben began to ask questions like, “What are our political leaders saying? And when they say it, does it matter? If the words are just part of a campaign, what kind of lasting effect will they have, and are politicians accountable for anything that they’re saying? What do those words do to different people groups and how do different groups receive and understand those words?”

For example, Ben points to a piece he wrote for Politicoro called “The Fact Is”. Ben has set a series of statements Justin Trudeau has made surrounding Canada’s sale of light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. “The fact is, there are jobs in London relying on this,” Trudeau has said. Fair point, but for Ben, the truth seems more fraught with difficulties. Trudeau has also characterized the LAVs as “jeeps”, not war machines, which might be more politically safe in Canada given that many Canadians tend to see themselves as peacekeepers and not warmakers. The piece seems to ask what we are willing to believe, and whether we are complicit in potential human rights violations.

Another Politicoro composer, Chris Friesen, drew inspiration from Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi as he composed a new work called “Freedom From Fear”. Friesen is a composition student at the University of Alberta. Aung San Suu Kyi has become the voice of a democratic movement in Myanmar, and she endured fifteen years of house arrest during her struggle, which continues today in her role as Leader of the National League for Democracy. According to Friesen’s program notes:

“The text for “Freedom from Fear” comes from a book of the same name written by Aung San Suu Kyi during her time under house arrest. The music itself has a lot of weight to it; its journey reflects the journey of Aung San Suu Kyi – one of fear, struggle, despair, but also courage. And courage really is the best part. It’s the moment where the weight is finally lifted, and even for just a second, everyone in the room knows fear is not the end.”

“Freedom From Fear”, the choral piece, uses this text:

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. […] Yet… courage rises again and again.”

Why was it important to commission new music and work with (obviously) living composers?

After all, plenty of concerts rely on existing choral repertoire.

“I think there’s real value in speaking openly and candidly about why people in power say what they say. I don’t know of any choral repertoire out there that’s been specifically written like this, to match this particular theme,” Ben says.

“The other reason is that I thought it would be interesting and attractive for composers to have the chance to examine a really important part of society with no restrictions. It was important for composers in this event to have the freedom to choose what they wanted to do. And then focus on that as a form of awareness – almost political activism in some way.”

Ben sees Politicoro as a concept that can live on in the future, and he wants people to have a great experience along the way.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to examine words or speak about what politicians are saying in any way. So hopefully composers can say what they want to say. But there are dangers in this.”

Music, politics and freedom of speech – what could go wrong?

“Any composer could totally manipulate the audience. As I was writing my piece, I thought, ‘This is how propaganda works.’ I could shape it this way so that people would think a certain way about this word. And to some extent, that’s what we are doing. So in some ways, the composer also has a responsibility to think really carefully about what they’re saying.”

Ben mentions an example from “warehouse of souls”, where I’ve written the set the word “deadly” numerous times in a light-hearted, humorous way. In 2015, U.S. Republican politician Mike Huckabee said:

“If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and you knew that in the five pound bag of peanuts there were about 10 peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no.”

warehouse of souls excerpt
An excerpt from “warehouse of souls”

We see so much violence in modern media that sometimes only parody can catch our attention. “warehouse of souls” uses a mashup of styles, texts, and emotions to convey a sense of chaos and uncertainty.

Given the strange way I’ve set some of the text, I wondered if the pieces Ben had received matched his vision for Politicoro.

Commissioning new music to match a creative concept

“I tried to lay out guidelines for the composers in a way that gave them an awareness of the area that we were working on, but that also gave them a lot of freedom to work within that idea.

“I didn’t want to lead anybody anywhere, but I wanted them to know the end goal, which was to examine the words of politicians in the realm of conflict and why they matter. Overall, this is also about the composers’ response to those words. What they think about the words, and their reflections on them. So I wanted that to be the end goal.”

Ben also set down practical requirements: scoring for SATB voices, a cappella, divisi allowed, duration, and a deadline. “Other than that, I wanted the composers to have a fair amount of freedom.”

Creative freedom comes with risks and rewards.

“You really don’t know what you’re going to get back. But I think that you can either tighten your grip too much and stifle some creativity, or you can give some guidelines and just see where it goes. You need to be open to what you get back, especially because it’s coming from a personal place.”

Composers and conductors might wonder if they’ve said too much or not enough during collaboration, and that’s part of the gig. In my own experience, we just have to try and read each other, listen, and build on one another’s ideas.

Athens mural
A mural in Athens, Greece, one place that inspired “warehouse of souls”.

Postscript: What if we get it all wrong?

I think words are important, and I’d like to use them to ask better questions instead of having better answers. Hosting a political forum is liable to stir up trouble, emotions, and controversy, but the ideas we don’t talk about are often the ones we wish we were brave enough to.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are conservative or liberal, what you say matters – it should matter,” Ben says.

Politicoro tries to move us beyond yes/no, either/or thinking and into a place where we can hold tension together. As I write this, I recognize the tiny vantage point I have, and that there is so much I cannot know about what words mean to others. I’d like to be able to look at the world from as many angles as possible.

But sometimes words seem meaningless. I’m not about to be bombed, sent to a war zone, or banished from a nation. I am not writing my questions from the perspective of survival, yet. Perhaps the true luxury is to even be able to build that grey space for ourselves individually, and as families, friends, churches, communities, and cultures.

We can barely understand the suffering of other people, and few people will understand our own. But we can build habits to hear one another. And then act with compassion. That’s why this project is important to me. I think listening leads to compassion.

I wrote “warehouse of souls” because composing music is a part of me, and I needed to do something constructive after learning a little bit about the refugee and migrant crisis first-hand in Greece. I didn’t know what else to do but write music. And we need to talk about it.

Go to Edmonton’s Studio 96 to experience Politicoro in person. Bring someone you care about. Let the music and the words speak with power. Learn to listen, speak back, and take action.

[Click here to get tickets for Borealis’ Politicoro concert in Edmonton on February 8, 2017.]

PPS – If you have a choir, you can also find protest music for your concerts without commissioning anyone (though that would also be great). Check out the very timely Choirs Against Racism page, where composer Chris Hutchings has listed some free choral scores.

Composers, use your words: Why writing program notes is so difficult

When the dots are on the page and the score is 99% finished, I face one final barrier before sending new music out into the world: program notes. There’s a yawning void on the inside cover page that must be filled. I meet it with a blank stare.

As though coming up with musical ideas, text, pitch materials, rhythms, and harmonies – not to mention time to write, notate, edit, and proofread after finding a ensemble to perform your work (hopefully with a commission at professional rates) – wasn’t hard enough, each score then demands a smart-sounding set of words to help describe itself.

Does this music mean something to me? What should people know about it? Why have I done this, anyway?

Program notes. Because I wanted to.

We composers can use program notes to educate our audiences. Those notes help conductors, performers, and concert goers (when the notes are actually printed in a program, at least) learn why the music is important to the composer and maybe what they hope to express.

Other than a pre-concert speech, the program notes are usually our only chance to explain and introduce ourselves and our work. Well written program notes (like a good title) can also stoke the audience’s imagination and help them connect with the music. This also helps us make a good first impression.

Sounds exciting, right? Kind of. There are many problems:

  • By the time I need to write program notes it is often late at night at the end of the project. Brain power is low.
  • Summoning the will to find some kind of objective viewpoint that can describe the totality of what I’ve done is overwhelming.
  • The words will be printed on the score forever (until the next version) and I’ll undoubtedly disagree with them later.
  • Music is supposed to help me describe things without words, but now all it demands is more words. This seems unfair to my tired brain.

Sometimes, in a state of near-exhausted delusion, I just want to type, in the pouty voice of a five year old:

“PROGRAM NOTES: I did it because I wanted to.

or

“PROGRAM NOTES: Just listen, already!”

These are not my best moments, but they’re real.

Can’t music survive without asking why? #JustifyYourExistence

Thanks to the internet, I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this tiny bit of writing. Composer Brandon Nelson (@brandonjnelson) tweeted this truth nugget, to which I replied:

Mental energy is valuable. Why should I explain why I composed something? Can’t the music speak for itself? Should people feel obligated to read my description? Shouldn’t the focus be on savouring the sound, rather than worrying about the inspiration or my life circumstances or that the french horns will announce the symbolic death of the dear beloved with a sombre fanfare or that the composer was deeply affected by his childhood cat?

“warehouse of souls”

Admittedly, I’m a bit sensitive to this issue right now because I recently completed a new piece for chamber choir called “warehouse of souls” that, I felt, called for a lengthy explanation of what I was thinking. It wasn’t easy, because there is a lot to say, and say clearly.

The score makes a mashup of the words of some well-known politicians who have spoken publicly about the global refugee and migrant crisis. It’s a big topic focused into six minutes of choral singing.

The music skips abruptly from one statement, one mood to another, eventually becoming something I called the “non-committal bullshit cloud” – a sort of swirling haze of meaningless words thrown together haphazardly. It has moments of intense beauty, tortured comedy, and confusing apathy.

It’s unlike any other piece I’ve written.

Borealis Choir and director Ben Ewert commissioned “warehouse of souls” and will be the first to perform it during the choir’s upcoming Politicoro concert in Edmonton, Canada on February 8, 2017.

Every piece of music, every score is an opportunity to communicate something important.

Some people will enjoy the music without any preparation and will take from it what they will. That can be healthy.

Others, maybe the most enthusiastic concert-goers, will spend extra time to really try and ask “What were they thinking?”, or “Why does this sound this way?” I’d like to help those people too, because I appreciate their passion and attention.

Program notes, you’re a golden opportunity. I’ll try and keep it together long enough to respect that.

p.s. Here’s an example of some program notes that I’m still proud of. It comes from the inside cover of an orchestral piece called “The Alms Tree”:

The Alms Tree program notes

//

You can find a bunch of other program notes (and more importantly, music) by clicking through to my catalogue here.

Why commission new choral music? This photo says it all. (+ recording and interview)

In a world of on-demand music activated by buttons and wi-fi and curated lists on smartphones where people then voluntarily lock said phones in a sock to hear a concert, sometimes it seems like live music making doesn’t know what to do with itself. But don’t panic. People are more than button-pushers – we still need to connect with each other like human beings. And anyone who’s had a chance to stand in front of a passionate group like the choirs at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School (LTCHS) in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada would agree.

Giving students and choirs a chance to make brand new music that brings people together using the basic technology of our voices in choral singing is a meaningful experience that needs to happen over and over.

Hearing “Fly On” for the first time

A few weeks ago I travelled to my hometown of Red Deer to hear the LTCHS Ladies’ Choir and Chamber Choir join forces to give the first-ever performance of a commissioned piece called “Fly On” as part of their aptly-named “Journey Home” concert. I also spent a rehearsal with choral director Lisa Friesen, pianist Erica Ortlieb and the excited students, where I heard the choir sing “Fly On” for the very first time. (Click to hear the recording.)

After the hours spent alone composing, hearing a piece for the first time feels like waking up into a dream you’ve been having repeatedly for months. It’s surreal.

I spoke to the students a bit about being a composer and about writing this piece, then participated in an enthusiastic rehearsal. Check it out:

This is why you should commission new music.
At rehearsal with the LTCHS choirs in Red Deer, Alberta.

About “Fly On” and why commissioning music is important

I wrote “Fly On”, at least in part, as a song for people who have felt misunderstood. Scored for SAB voices and piano accompaniment, its lyrical lines weave and turn over an active keyboard part that fuses melancholy and joy. Beginning and ending with the words “all shall be well,” the piece reminds me that we are not alone, that generations of the past struggled as we do to make sense of the world. (Click to see the score.)

Bringing new music from concept to reality is a rewarding experience and still too rare for many ensembles. This isn’t the first time that the LTCHS choirs have worked with composers, though, so I asked Lisa Friesen, Director of Choirs, to share her insights.

David: Why do you think commissioning and performing new pieces has been valuable for students at Lindsay Thurber?

Lisa: “It’s valuable, because – let’s face it – the genre of choral music is not exactly the most-played list on Spotify today. Sometimes I think students can get the false impression that choral music is something that happened 400 years ago but isn’t necessarily relevant in today’s world. When we include them in this valuable process, they learn that while Bach wrote some pretty incredible cantatas long ago, the choral tradition did not die with him, or Mozart, or Beethoven, etc. I think this experience with “Fly On” had a particular impact because you had strong ties to our school as a former student. My kids were able to recognize that choral music is very much alive and well, and I think this project inspired some to consider a career in music composition.

“Furthermore, it can often be a challenge to select repertoire for my performing groups. Often, I will love the sound or theme of a piece, but learn that it is too challenging or the range isn’t right, or there are too many/too few voice parts. At the same time, I may be able to find songs that meet our musical needs – but I find the tune to be cheesy or the subject matter isn’t a good fit. When I go through the process of commissioning a piece, I get to offer my criteria of range, difficulty and voicing. I can also give my ideals in terms of style or theme – and the beauty is that if we are working through the piece and something doesn’t seem right or isn’t working well, then I have the opportunity to bring that to the composer and say “what can we do about this?”, which is not really an option when I am simply ordering generic music off of J.W. Pepper.”

When I visited, the students seemed really enthusiastic about “Fly On”. What do you think they enjoyed most about the whole experience of preparing and performing a new piece?

“When I first told the students about this project, you could feel the energy in the room. Before they even heard the first note of “Fly On”, there was a very strong sense of ownership. These students knew and understood that for this short period of time, this song belonged to us alone.

“They also recognized the responsibility that we had to perform this song to our highest potential, because this was the first time it would ever be heard by an audience. When the students found out that the composer would be in that audience, it compelled them to work even harder to hone their performance.

“Of course, it was also beneficial that you used text with a theme to which the students could easily relate and the musical phrases and harmonies were written in such a way to complement their developing voices – it highlighted their strengths and downplayed their weaknesses, which made the song very enjoyable for them to sing.”

Do you have any advice for directors from other schools or choral ensembles who want to commission new pieces but aren’t sure how to begin?

“I would say that if you are interested in commissioning a choral work, the best place to start would be in conversation – if you know a composer, talk to them about this process and what you’re looking for. See if they have an interest or if they know of someone who might be better-suited to your needs. If you aren’t connected with a composer, talk with your friends who are part of the choral world and you may be surprised at how many names might come up.

“Find out what sort of budget you might need to make it happen, and then have more conversations. There could be a supporter of your program who would love to contribute to this worthwhile venture. Approach people in your community – it is really interesting to see people get excited about a project like this, and often those people aren’t who you might expect. If all else fails, put together some fundraisers to help you meet your goal.

“In this way, both your singers and your community will feel a strong sense of ownership of the finished result – and it’s a great way to bolster ticket sales. When people find out about this opportunity to hear the world premiere of a brand new piece, suddenly an ordinary choir concert becomes an exciting and exclusive event.

“If you are toying with the idea of commissioning a new work, I would highly recommend that you go through with it, as it is a benefit to directors, singers, audience members, and community members alike!”

//

Listen to the recording below or on Soundcloud to hear the LTCHS Ladies’ Choir and Chamber Choir sing “Fly On”, directed by Lisa Friesen. The first sounds you’ll hear come from pianist Erica Ortberg and vocal soloist Sarah-jane Streibel. Click here to read the score. 

Contact me if you want to perform “Fly On” with your choir or are interested in commissioning a new piece.

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

New music powered by early morning coffee.