Merry, Happy, Joyful, Blessed, Jolly and all other greetings of The Season to you all! This being the ending of the year, I thought I’d tell you about one of the musical highlights for me in 2012. As I have often reported, the life of a freelance musician is often a quirky and unpredictable one, filled with experiences that few people ever get to try. This last summer I had such an experience; I went to a summer camp. For choral composers.
This is an annual event, hosted by a renowned composer named Steven Sametz, and held at Lehigh University, where he is a member of the music faculty. Each year he invites another musical luminary to be his co-host, and then he brings 20 or so choral composers to come and spend a week together, focusing intensively (and exclusively) on the complex art of writing choral music. This year his co-host was Steven Stucky, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a delightful man who teaches at Cornell.
The participants were all professional composers and conservatory students from all parts of the US and Canada. I’d guess the median age was about 35 or so.
We Hit the Ground Running
We arrived at Lehigh, which is nestled among the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, on a Saturday afternoon. Some people showed up at the last minute, exhausted from two long days of travel. Lehigh, though beautiful, is not exactly conveniently located. So we all gathered at dinner and introduced ourselves, giving a bit of our background and trying to learn each others’ names. The mood was eager and friendly, but also exhausted and somewhat discombobulated. Most of us were looking forward to finding our assigned dorm rooms and getting a good night of sleep to prepare for our busy week. Then our host Mr. Sametz stood to offer his own words of welcome, which concluded with his handing us each a piece of paper with a short poem on it, and breezily asking us to set the poem to music for a full choir and bring the finished product in to the 10 a.m. session the following morning, where we would sing through them all and discuss them. And with that, the week exploded into overdrive, which never really let up until we said our weary farewells eight days later.
Twenty composers, who, minutes before, had been looking forward to one last night of schmoozing and cocooning before going into action, instead now fanned out frantically across the campus, looking for quiet spots where they could find a desk, a chair, a light, and plugs for their computers and keyboards. The genial fellowship of dinner had been replaced by lonely anxiety, knowing that in just over twelve hours we would each be presenting our work to each other, assuming we could even come up with something!
And that night set the tone for our week at Lehigh. Sure enough, at 10 a.m. the next morning, we all arrived with our compositions in hand. Copies were made and distributed to the group, and we then proceeded to sing each one. I think we were all very impressed with the caliber of the musicianship assembled there. Not only did everyone come up with a solid little composition, but each one was unique and distinctive. Some were extremely unusual and creative. But it was clear, both from the compositions themselves, as well as the skill with which we all read through them, that this was indeed a high-octane group, and it was going to take everything we had just to stay up with the others. The discussions of the pieces which followed were detailed, sophisticated, and best of all, very generous—spirited and supportive. It was an interesting experiment in human psychology. Here were 20 strangers, each thrown into a choral composers’ version of “Survivor”. Over the course of the week, each one of us was pushed toward the breaking point at one time or another. But instead of descending into barbarism, we all spontaneously seemed to take the high road, and gave each other constant cheerful and respectful support. We all deeply appreciated it and became cherished friends. Yay composers!
An Apparent Stowaway!
After that, we were given three days to write a full length choral piece, including finding a text. We returned to our various work stations and hardly ever left them. Each morning we had our group discussions to review our progress, and each afternoon, we each had a brief private session with one of the directors. Other than that, we were on our own, feverishly writing, rewriting, and writing some more.
I was supposed to be sharing a suite with two other composers, but only one of them showed up. My suite-mate and I talked frequently and were grateful for each other’s company. We speculated a couple of times about what could have become of our third roommate. On Wednesday night we had a little party in the common room for whoever wanted to drop in. Just about everybody showed up, grateful for a chance to blow off a little steam. I struck up a conversation with one of the other participants—a precocious young teenager whom I had enjoyed meeting at our morning assemblies. I asked him what suite he lived in and he said “Yours! I’m your roommate!”. The other guy and I were flabbergasted. We had never even heard him, let alone seen him. He had just stayed holed up in his bedroom 20 hours a day, cranking out music. As I said, it was an intense place.
We finished our pieces on Wednesday, at which point we handed them over to an excellent professional choir, the Princeton Singers, who learned them all and performed them at two concerts the following Friday and Saturday nights. It was a prodigious feat on their part, and a rare privilege for us composers, because it gave us the opportunity not only to hear our work professionally done, but also to be able to change and edit it and hear how the changes worked. In the real world, you usually only get once chance to hear a piece if a lot of people are involved in performing it. You have to get it right the first time or live with the consequences. Rewrites are very expensive.
Our final concert took place in Washington, DC, where the Library of Congress was hosting a weekend workshop on American choral music. Our pieces constituted an entire concert program, which was billed as “the latest” in American choral music. And we certainly lived up to that claim. After all, the choir was singing from music on which the ink wasn’t completely dry!
My own particular offering was a piece called The Galaxy, after the Longfellow poem of that name, which I set to music.
Here are the lovely words:
Torrent of light and river of air,
Along whose bed the glimmering stars are seen
Like gold and silver sands in some ravine
Where mountain streams have left their channels bare!
The white drift of worlds o’er chasms of sable,
The star-dust that is whirled aloft and flies
From the invisible chariot-wheels of God.
And herewith, below, is a recording of the piece that was made that night. I recommend listening with earphones. I hope you like it!
Your friend in music,