Friday, December 12, 2008

Turn the prism

InVocation, like many choirs, is in the middle of its concert season right now. We had two concerts last weekend; we have one tonight and one tomorrow night. This is fun. If you've ever been in a performing ensemble, you know what I mean--months of work culminate in several fleeting concerts, and then it all begins again.

In the last couple of weeks, my thinking has been split between the fruition of this concert season and the beginning of the next one--planning with Mark (my co-creative director), ordering music, talking with instrumentalists, assembling packets of new music for singers. When Mark & I plan, we think about texts. We think about tunes. We think about performance practices and compositional styles. We think about where the music comes from, trying to use music by local composers and music from parts of the world we may never see. We think about the musical forces at our disposal: number of singers, types of instruments, timbres, strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, likely concert venues. We think about musical styles...pacing of program, fit, length, difficulty, familiarity vs. freshness, and the ever-elusive "fun" factor. We try to see and hear the music from the perspectives of our singers and our concertgoers.

At the end of this process, we put this series of juxtapositions in the hands, hearts, minds and voices of our singing friends...and, for the next few months, we listen. We listen for what's working, and for what isn't. We listen for problems and for beauty. We listen to intonation, vocal technique, blend, tempo, articulation, dynamic contrast...for all the things that make it possible to get ourselves out of the way and make room for the magic to happen.

A couple of posts ago, I spoke of the alchemy of music in making connections between human beings. I love the concentrated goodwill of choral singing--a bunch of people getting together to do this thing that makes them vulnerable, that asks them to simultaneously dig into themselves and forget themselves--to work cooperatively toward something beautiful. No winners and losers. Just striving and risking and trusting and blooming, creating together.


But there's one more element of music making that makes it so...well, opulent for me. There's a way in which texts and tunes, glued together and all laid out in a row, have a way of making you see familiar stories differently. And each of the dozen singers and 150 or so listeners--every person has a slightly different experience, based on what we bring to the table.

One of the pieces in our current program is a familiar carol in new clothing. Joy to the World is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous sacred Christmas songs going; however, the complexity of the version we're singing changes the experience of the song substantially. We're singing an arrangement of the carol by local (brilliant) composer Stephen Paulus. It is not simple...and yet, it is. The dimensions of the piece are extraordinary; horizontally, it's polymetric. In addition, there are up to three different lines going on at a given moment, with layers and complexity increasing as the song progresses. Vertically, from the very first chord, it's full of great sheets of sparkling harmonic fecundity that change with every beat.

I've known it before as a simple song, hummable while baking Christmas cookies. This version is not hummable. But, as one listener at our first concert noted, "That arrangement just turned the prism for me. I thought I knew that hymn, but this version made me see it completely differently."

Richness. There are new layers of meaning hiding even in a carol we've sung since we were first able to sing. That's what serious art is all about, Charlie Brown. The RevGals' Friday Five today is about what we see (see previous post), and one of my fellow RevGals included this quote in her answer; I'll leave you with it, and the invitation to make time to reflect on the richness of the familiar in your life:

No object is mysterious; the mystery is your eye.
--Elizabeth Bowen


Sara said...

Lovely thoughts, Jodi. I'm looking forward to singing and listening to the piece tonight.

Songbird said...

I wish I got to work with you.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I love, love, love the emphasis you put on listening. That's what writing is like for me too--at least when I am writing fiction or poetry. I have to listen to the silence and hear what is waiting to be said. Often, I tell my writer's group that writing is like music. You have to listen to your work for the rhythms and the repeated phrases and the wrong notes. Somehow it helps them understand a little better how to edit their own work.

Wow, this was a tangent. Hope you don't mind.

liz garnett said...

Just stumbled upon your post, and am quite delighted by the relish with which you write about music: 'great sheets of sparkling harmonic fecundity' is a wonderful thing to say about someone's music and I bet Stephen Paulus is touched by your response.