Vox (Humana) In The Stars, and a lesson for composers

The dome shuddered as it turned on its axis, gears creaking. Ethereal voices filled the air, waxing and waning in intensity. Suddenly a shaft of light burst through the roof. First just a sliver, the opening expanded above the giant telescope in the centre of the room, high above our heads. “It feels like we’re in a science fiction movie!”, said my wife. Just what I was thinking. The choir, having circled the room, came to rest on a unison hum, and then all was silent. Yeah, just a little more dramatic than raising the red curtain.
Choir in the Dome
On Sunday I attended Vox Humana’s first concert program of the fall, Vox in the Stars. The unique venue for the show was the Plaskett Telescope dome at the National Research Council’s Centre of the Universe, a short distance from downtown Victoria. This was the second of two concerts the chamber choir performed on consecutive evenings with conductor Brian Wismath.

The music was Urmas Sisask’s Gloria Patri, a work based on Latin church texts. An avid amateur astronomer, Sisask had studied the revolution of the planets before composing this work. He chose five pitches as raw material, each representing one planet of our solar system. The entire 15-movement work uses only these five pitches. (F#, G#, A, C#, and D, in case you were wondering).

Sisask uses counterpoint and ostinatos to propel the work forward, pausing for many opportunities for soloists to shine. The highlight of this work for me was the Oremus movement, the second last of the whole work. On an “o” vowel, the choir pushes and pulls its way through the vocal register and various minor/major transformations until bursting through with a strong forte sound. It had a very meditative feeling.

As a composer I can’t help analyzing what I am hearing during a concert. What lessons can a composer take from this piece?

This is a very clear example of a composer giving himself strict guidelines (the 5 pitches), and working within those to create a full concert of music. Stravinsky is quoted as saying: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”

One of the problems composers have when faced with the blank page (or empty Finale file) is that the possibilities are limitless.

Limit your options, and you’ll increase your output. It becomes easier to develop ideas to their fullest this way. Just decide on a course of action and see where it takes you!

This was a beautiful concert with sensitive direction, an expressive choir, and a wonderfully unique space. Learn about more Vox Humana concerts here: http://www.voxhumanachoir.ca

Recommended listening: Sisask’s Benedictio

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