Symphonies in My Head

A symphony really doesn’t deserve to be delivered to its audience through the copper filament of a pair of headphones. For all the labor that goes into a 40-minute work (both in composition and preparation on the part of the ensemble) that sees its finer details realized at the hands and lungs of sixty-some-odd musicians, it’s really a disservice to have the sound injected directly into one’s head cavity. It is not possible to really experience a “wall of sound” when the sound begins and ends as a whisper from a mere earbud. In the act of experiencing sound for pleasure, acoustics are important, and despite the impressive structural complexity of the brain, it sadly has no acoustic features.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (stanpacz@flickr)

And yet, for anyone who lives near a major metropolitan center, seats at the concert hall that put you within respectable distance of the stage are upwards of $100. Classical music ain’t cheap, and that is why, for most of the classical music moments in my life, I will hear symphonies in my head.

Or wherever the local community orchestra happens to be playing.

Discovering Barbershop

Singing in a boys choir when I was younger and later singing with my high school chorus, there were few opportunities to perform a cappella music. A cappella frequently emerged in rehearsals as an ear-training exercise, but it wasn’t till I encountered what seemed to be an army of a cappella singers and groups in college that I got my first, real taste of the form. As a freshman, I auditioned for a bass opening in Cornell University’s Last Call, but after not getting the part, I more or less abandoned a cappella for other pursuits. I later came to realize that I also just lacked a basic interest in the genre. Unlike the way I gravitate towards the thick and full sound of a Late Romantic symphony orchestra, I couldn’t get as excited about the typically thinner voicing of modern a cappella.

Enter barbershop music.

My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan
My barbershop quartet competing in Taiwan

It’s ironic that I had to leave the states and travel over 7,000 miles to Taiwan to discover and embrace what is often known as a uniquely American tradition, but barbershop music proved itself to me to be a class of a cappella singing that shares almost no common ground with the modern vocal band. A precise specification of the style is in fact written into the Barbershop Harmony Society‘s Contest and Judging Handbook. The section that outlines contest entry requirements reads:

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a predominantly homophonic texture. […]

Occasional brief passages may be sung by fewer than four voice parts. […]

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions. Barbershop music also features a balanced and symmetrical form, and a standard meter.

The differences with modern a cappella are implied, mostly by way of the limitations this specification places on songs written for barbershop. Barbershoppers do not see these as limitations of course; rather, they are the defining principles that characterize barbershop purity in sound and style.

  • Four-part chords for every melody note
  • Major, minor, and dominant chords (mostly)
  • Understandable lyrics, easily singable melodies
  • Standard meter

The first and bolded point is the kicker for me. Left only to the imagination, music that adheres to this rule might seem cumbersome and texturally uninteresting, and such criticism I think is actually fair. The texture of barbershop music tends not to vary too widely from song to song. However, it is this rule that gives barbershop singing its richness and wall-of-sound quality. There are, almost by definition, very few gaps in phrases and incomplete chords. Most importantly perhaps, it is the combination of this rule with the second (allowing only certain, simple chords) that allows for barbershoppers to “ring” chords — a topic for another day.

二胡

First order of business: I am living in Taiwan (since August 19th).

I am taking an 二胡 (èrhú) class, and thus far have learned the basics of bowing. The proper grip and bow placement is tricky, and having never played a string instrument, the entire experience is foreign to me. In the first two lessons, none of my previous musical training has volunteered itself to be of any use, and the class is furthermore taught entirely in Chinese, so you know, there’s that.

Here I am being amazing. Mhm.
Here I am being amazing. Mhm.

Through my early fumbles handling the instrument, I have learned two important phrases:

  • 放鬆: relax
  • (太)用力: (too much) exertion/force

IHS LA 2015 and Lessons from The Who

I expected my one day at the International Horn Symposium in Los Angeles to yield the excitement and energy usually afforded by conferences of a grand scale, but I instead walked away feeling ambivalent about my lot as a horn player. Oops. Still, I appreciated the closing words of horn player J. Gregory Miller recounting his experiences touring with English rock band The Who:

Lessons from The Who

Oh, also, I bought a fancy-pants mute from Ion Balu, who is quite the gentlemanly dude.

World Premiere

The aforementioned performance of my hymn took place this last Saturday in Mountain View at the Community School of Music and Arts. Below is the one, very awful photo I have of the venue (Tateuchi Hall) from my seat in the back while I waited to go on stage myself.

Tateuchi Hall, Community School of Music and Arts
Tateuchi Hall, Community School of Music and Arts

The performance went well, I thought, given that we were only able to rehearse it once. I still think it’s a hilarious thing that as a composer I get to call this occasion the world premiere of my piece.

Special thanks to my teacher, Daniel Wood, as well as Selin, Linus, and Jimmy Haber who all volunteered to play the piece. Also, thanks to my friends Nick, Anthony, and Lilliana for coming!

A Hymn for Horns

For an upcoming recital, I have been trying to figure out how to perform (or arrange to have performed) my new choral work… without a chorus. Apart from my not having many connections in the choral community, a full chorus would probably outnumber the students and parents in attendance at the recital.

As a fallback, I hastily mixed a synthesized rendition of the hymn for horn choir. I owe this exercise to GarageBand for having an impressive horn ensemble sample in its sound library, but I was happy enough with the results to take the time to “write out” (in Sibelius) the score for a 5-part horn choir.

Horns are great. I'm not biased.
Horns are great. I’m not biased.

Some concerns and considerations:

  • In its original key, the piece would demand of the first horn players a sustained high C. So, I have lowered the key of the piece by a whole step. I am considering lowering it even a half-step further, but that would result in the somewhat awkward key of B major for at least one section.
  • My composition teacher informed me that a 5-part horn choir is a very rare and unusual ensemble. He recommended re-scoring the piece for horn octet, which would have the added benefit of doling out the longer phrases and high parts more fairly (as it is, the 2nd horn part has no rests), as well as enabling beefier chords.
  • Not needing to figure out how to distribute spoken syllables across notes is a huge burden off my shoulders. Not to say that it isn’t a useful exercise, but writing the piece for an instrumental choir has allowed me to reinstate the phrasings, slurs, and ties that I first had in mind, which, you know, I think are more tasteful.

There’s a lesson here about the unpredictable evolution of one’s own work. Something for me to mull over and write about later.

Finding the Right Words

My recent predilection for liturgical music has given rise to what ought to be my first choral work. It’s not finished, but with it, I have tried to produce a hymn in the style of Romantic-era musical settings of Russian orthodox worship services. I have given myself the rather daunting task of trying to capture the same spiritual flavor of these works, while omitting any religious program (that is, for some definition of “spiritual”). I’ve written the piece for a cappella SATBB chorus, and it’s looking to be about three minutes long.

At the moment, I’m in the process of deciding on a text for the work, which is a process so critical and yet unbounded as to be basically paralyzing. My first experiments in assigning words to the music have involved a French adaptation of a poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943).

More on my aspirations for this piece later.

South Bay Horn Day 2015

This past Saturday, I attended South Bay Horn Day at Mountain View High School. The festival lasted from nine in the morning to nine at night, with a mix of workshops, horn choir rehearsals, and performances filling the day. It is held annually, and I only attended once before in 2013.

South Bay Horn Day 2015
From my seat in the mass choir

It was a joy to meet so many other horn players from the area and to hear the excitement in their voices as they recounted their experiences with the instrument. It was a joke instantiated in several forms and reiterated almost ad nauseam that we’ve all sold our souls to one of the most difficult instruments to play. Laughs of solidarity on this topic sounded from dawn till dusk.

Memorable performances from the day included the world premiere of a piece for horn quartet called VA 22211 and a horn choir rendition of an aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio (“O rest in the Lord”). VA 22211, named in reference to the zip code of Arlington National Cemetery, pays tribute to our fallen heroes and explores a range of feelings from hymnal reverence to heroic fervor. The Mendelssohn selection felt to me more sacred and spiritual in an all-horn setting than in its original scoring for orchestra and soprano. Its cadential C major chord freed me of all worldly cares, if only for a few moments.

Voices on High

The latest flurry in the vicissitudes of my listening patterns summons the music of the church. I have created a playlist on Spotify called “Hymns” containing five ecclesiastical selections for unaccompanied chorus.

Cathedral Interior
Cathedral Interior
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff – Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Op. 31: XII. To Thee We Sing
  • Sergei Rechmaninoff – All-Night Vigil, Op. 37: II. Praise the Lord, O my soul
  • Eric Whitacre – Lux Aurumque
  • Alexander Gretchaninov – Passion Week, Op. 58 – At Thy mystical supper
  • Morten Lauridsen – O Magnum Mysterium

The first hymn by Rachmaninoff often seems to appear by itself on concert programs, which I assume is because it is less strictly modal, orthodox, and chant-like in character than the surrounding movements of the larger work and follows an accessible, arc-like shape from beginning to end. The second selection comes from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and features a call-and-response dialogue between solo voice and choir. It is more austere and modal than the first piece, but ends with a more familiar cadence into a B-flat major chord, reminding us of its author and his place in history. The descent to the low B-flat engineered for the basses awakens the passive listener.

I don’t have much to say about the other three selections, except that they are optimistic in their outlook and inspire quietude.

I am a nonreligious person, but will readily admit to the merit of the vast library of music that we owe to centuries of music-making being largely a by-product of religious worship. Emanating from the thickness of harmonies and the tensing and relaxing of cascading suspensions are the reverberations of devotion, exaltation, and humility, as pure I think as humankind as ever distilled them in non-literal forms.

Back on Track

About a year ago, I found myself listening to less and less classical music in my daily listening routine, replacing the late Romantic program on my playlist with a hodge podge of EDM tracks I managed to harvest from my Alesso radio station on Pandora. I’m not really sure how it happened, but I guess I was in the throes of a more… hormonal phase of music.

EDM

It was a concerning thing to be getting away from my classical predilections, but corrective measures weren’t something that could be forced. Listening to my old favorites from Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak just wasn’t doing it for me. Anytime I plugged in my earphones, I caved in to an embarrassingly teenage compulsion for four-on-the-floor, synthed-out dance tracks.

Fortunately, discovering Arnold Bax tripped a switch in my head that has started to set my listening habits back on track. At the very least, I’m indulging these days in a far more balanced musical diet.