Calling All [Music] Composers!

Photo: Head in the Clouds

To all the teachers and grownups who ever complained that I always had my head in the clouds: [insert vigorous *RASPBERRY* here]!

I said I would do it long, long ago, so ready or not, here goes: a passel of potential poetic [and other] lyrics. When I write, rhyming or rhythmic or not, I very often hear music in my imagination. Too bad I don’t have the musical chops to set my own texts, whether for solo or ensemble singing, accompanied or a cappella…or maybe it’s not sad at all: I also love collaborative arts. So join me, if you like!

I will likely publish some of this stuff in my upcoming books. The only published book so far, Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking: Drawings & Other Artworks, Tall Tales and Weird Creatures (Volume 1), is up for your perusal as well—just grab a copy through Amazon.

[May I suggest that you use Amazon Smile—smile.amazon.com—where you can get Amazon to make a small charitable donation of your choice from their profits]).

This post is not an endorsement of Amazon, paid or otherwise, though I happily use the behemoth’s services extensively myself. Including as my book publisher, since I am far too “unmarketable”—thank you, gallerists, publishers, and agents of the past who classify anything non-repetitive, unprecedented, or wildly varied as impossible to package and sell. This post is not meant to be a whining snark-fest, either, since I am genuinely grateful that said business persons were honest enough with themselves to recognize their limitations in promoting unusual or unclassifiable works, and honest enough, in turn, with me to help me recognize that my vocation isn’t in making a living out of my arts but in making a life with and through them.

Meanwhile, I still love to join forces with other creatives, no matter what our project or theme, when the muse brings us together. I have collaborated with other artists to create numerous visual, written, and performed artworks over the years and am always delighted with the learning, bonding, challenges, inspiration, and joy that come from such interplay. If you find anything in here that sparks (no pun intended) your imagination, I welcome you to my playground. If you’re just here to read and—hopefully—enjoy, you are most welcome as well. I’m happy for the company.

Photo: Afire with Inspiration

Here’s hoping to fan the flames of your imagination…

To read any of the dozens of sets of poems and texts, grouped loosely by theme or topic or mood, just click here or on the freshly minted Poems & Lyric Texts link at the top of my homepage.

Photo: CHEESE!

I’m not above grinning at you crazily if you’re even remotely a kindred spirit. Cheese!

Let Me be So Attuned

For those of you who would like to Tune In suitably, the concert that was being prepared when I wrote today’s post will be performed tonight by the University of North Texas A Cappella Choir, conducted by my esteemed spouse Richard Sparks. Click on this link, and it’ll take you to the live-streamed concert at 8 pm Central Standard Time. Or, if you can, come on over to UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center and enjoy the concert (with me and a host of other fans) in the lovely Winspear hall.

Digital illo from a photo: A Cappella HarmonyI am listening to a superb vocal sextet as the singers demonstrate the purity of tone and the achingly clear, clean dissonances and harmonies that their conductor has just been coaching the listening university choir to attempt. When they two sets of singers all join forces and achieve this without putting undue stress on their breathing and without letting anyone’s vibrato widen far enough to fall off its assigned note, the whole room, no matter how large or small, dry or reverberant, empty or crowded, becomes electric. The power of even the faintest pianissimo, when perfectly tuned to the chord of the moment, scintillates in such perfect proportion, one note to another, that involuntary shivers of pleasure run up and down my spine.

The conductor admonishes the singers to embrace the more tender expressive qualities of the passage they’re singing; instead of attack-and-cutoff beginnings and endings to notes and phrases, they attempt to let the notes open and close naturally with the breath. Attack becomes the almost imperceptible awakening sensation of even, steady onset, and cutoff loses its hard artifice in favor of the easeful grace of release. I think that this, too, makes a fine representation of what it should be to live in tune with my fellow beings, to breathe in consonance with them whether we are making pretty and perhaps predictably agreeable chords or exact and shivering dissonances.

This is the gorgeous, staggeringly intense experience of listening to genuinely sensitive music-making, of powerfully accurate tuning. A wonderfully skilled musician will no doubt say that the experience is even deeper for the singers themselves, as the physical sensation can only be intensified when one is physically part of the sounding instrument in this fundamental way. But I have been in those rooms, at times, where the perfectly timed phrasing of notes and passages and the confluence of vibrations are so perfectly aligned that I feel I am no longer a solid object, distinct from all other things, but have become an integrated element of the glittering cosmos. This, I think, is what it means to gain true harmony.Digital illo from a photo: Score

My Little Night Music

Invocation

From the settling of the evening to the whispering of dawn

Lies a tenebrously winding way that wanders bleakly on…

What’s ahead is hid in veiling; what has been, lost in a mist,

And with strength and spirits failing goes the wayfarer, who kissed

Fond farewell to all familiars, bade goodbye to every known,

And set off to see tomorrow; now it seems all hope is flown.

But a flicker in the darkness sparks the vision of a wing,

And the silence now is shattered as a voice begins to sing!

Glorious, the song is lifted in its swelling, sweet refrains,

And the wayfarer is gifted with new courage in his veins.

What a loveliness is in it when such music comes along

To illumine every minute; what great powers in a song!

When the journey seems unending and the dark rules every vale,

For whoever needs the tending, let me be

A nightingale.Digital illo: Nightingale

Scream It Like You Mean It

Digital illo: B&BIf you’ve never experienced the almost ferally visceral adventure of hearing a performance where the formally clad male chorus belts out the lyrics of each work, each man in perfect time with what would ordinarily be his voice part (first tenor, bass, baritone, etc), but screaming so loudly that there’s no discernible key singly or altogether—then you’ve never heard the Finnish performers known as Mieskuroro Huutajat (Screaming or Shouting Men). In their performances, even the most famous and familiar songs are deep mysteries to be unmasked gradually by focused—if slightly frightened—listeners. If you haven’t had the Shouting Men experience, however, you might still have had such a hair-raising listening adventure in a supposed concert or rehearsal. Many an ordinary choir has its moments of being involved in an almost unbearable shout-fest.

Sitting in the back of a hard-surfaced rehearsal space packed with a mass choir in prep for the famously big and bombastic Beethoven Nine‘s ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken,’ with a chorus of big-voiced collegians full of energy and enthusiasm, no less, could conceivably deafen you. Or drive you mad. ‘Ode to Joy‘ becomes almost insufferably opposite to joyful, the choral equivalent of being carpet-bombed, if the singers haven’t already been subject to a goodly quantity of training prior to your visit.

The recent evening where the latter experience reminded me of the aural dangers with which such rehearsals can be fraught was, thankfully, not that group’s first foray into the depths of the piece. They had worked past the awkward or tuneless point of flogging notes and were more focused on nuances of the sound in various parts of the composition where phrasing and textual emphasis begin to be more significant than learning individual notes or when strictly turning the volume ‘up to eleven‘ is the goal. Now it was time to be subtler, to learn why Ludwig van Beethoven or the text’s poet Friedrich Schiller might have chosen a particular word, or what singers in the rehearsal might need to be prepared for when they were handed off in a week or two to the symphony conductor who would lead the public performances. And, of course, it was time to be untying some more of the knots in the choir’s German pronunciation.

Getting the sounds of the language right and even, sometimes, appropriate to a period in history when the language was significantly different from the present version, if that’s when the composition was written, always makes as much improvement in the overall sound of a piece as getting the notes right. Most composers’ works are heavily flavored as much by the natural vowel and consonant sounds and rhythms of their textual languages as by their personal compositional styles and languages. If you’re singing in German but your first language is English or Korean or Spanish or Chinese, as is the case with most of these students, that can take some serious learning and practice.

On the night in question, the big Beethoven rehearsal was followed in less than a half hour by a full concert performance of another massive German choral classic, the Johannes Brahms ‘Ein deutsches Requiem.’ This piece was performed by the most advanced and experienced of the university’s choirs, with even bigger voices among them, in the main concert hall of the campus. That group was, of course, at the end of its whole rehearsal period of work on the Brahms, and was in concert dress and on stage in the far finer and more refined acoustics of the performance space. Attending audience members would hardly think about it, most of them not having just sat in the foregoing rehearsal, but despite the potentially deeper well of experience among the singers, their later stage of preparation, the improved acoustic, and the attentive state of the choristers that arises in performance mode, the problems and possibilities remained pretty much the same. If the German pronunciation was any less accurate, the pitches any less solid and informed, the changes in meter and volume any less clear, precise, subtle, and graceful, there could still be the risk of concert attendees being deafened or merely battered about the head by the cacophony. You might not always think of concert attendance (especially outside of death-metal arena performances) as being dangerous, but there it is.

As a favorite opera educator was fond of saying, practice and preparation could mean the difference between Bel canto (beautiful singing) and Can Belto (a humorous American coinage meaning, roughly, I Can Shout). The zone between these two can be remarkably small when the music is as grand-scale, powerful, and emotionally charged as Beethoven and Brahms’s superb works. No matter which the piece, far better that both performers and audience leave feeling joyful than near to needing their own requiems sung. Yelling “songs” can be an interesting stunt (and one I have experienced in a small and resonant space with that chorus of Finnish gentlemen blaring away at me), and it’s often a state that must be visited sometime during the preparation of a major choral work, too. But unless the goal is actually having listeners’ heads explode, it’s ever so much better that everyone does his and her preparation diligently until the big sounds, even in rehearsal, are not constantly terrifying but in fact mostly soul-stirring. Nice when we can save the shouting for a good standing ovation’s “Bravissimi!” at the end of the concert.Digital illo: Can Belto

In fond memory of our dear James Dale Holloway, who was known to exhort his singers to “never sing louder than Lovely!”