Darkness and Light at Emmanuel

Definite word of this didn’t come in before I sent out my recent e-newsletter (what? you aren’t signed up? go to the home page, scroll down to the lower right and click), but I am happy to report that Emmanuel Music will do my motet One With the Darkness, One with the Light at Emmanuel Church’s 10 AM Eucharist on April 26. Emmanuel is at 15 Newbury Street in Boston, MA. This is a happy coincidence as I will be in town to attend the performance of my Oboe Quartet in Brookline that evening.

The motet is based on a lovely text extracted from Wendell Berry‘s sequence “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer“, found in his Collected Poems, 1957-1982, a poem I first came across in the anthology Upholding Mystery, edited by David Impastato.

Candlemas in Boston

I just got word of this upcoming performance, unfortunately a little too late for my most recent e-newsletter: Emmanuel Music will do my motet Meditation for Candlemas as part of the 10:00 am Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston on February 1. Emmanuel Music’s Artistic Director Ryan Turner will conduct.

This piece sets a text by Denise Levertov, and is the first of the eight motets I have written for Emmanuel Church so far, dating back to 1994. Check out the complete list of my choral music here, and listen to recorded excerpts here.

The Call at Emmanuel

Emmanuel Music will premiere my George Herbert setting The Call at this Sunday’s 10 am Emmanuel Church liturgy in Boston. You can read the text here; below is my brief program note on the piece:

Thirty years after setting George Herbert’s The Call in a folk style for use by the Catholic Campus Ministry at Columbia University, I have returned to the text with a setting for Emmanuel Church that retains some melodic elements of the first version.

While I usually treat a text in a linear manner from beginning to end, in this piece I have broken open Herbert’s tightly bound form by freely repeating and fragmenting the poem in two contrapuntal Fantasias based on musical motifs from the Chorales that frame the motet.

As was the case with seven previous motets, I gratefully offer The Call as a gift to the Emmanuel community. But this piece is dedicated to a particular member of that community, to John Harbison on his 75th birthday: admired composer, generous advocate, dear friend.

The Call

I am writing this as a break from working on a new motet for Emmanuel Church, the latest in a series of pieces I have made over the last two decades for that remarkable community and its remarkable musical traditions. The text is a George Herbert poem, the same one that Vaughan Williams used in the Five Mystical Songs:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

I believe my colleague Carson Cooman has set the text as well. I am sure there must be other composers who have been attracted to the lapidary quality of this poem.

I am working a little differently from my customary process of keeping one eye on the text while composing and taking the form of the poem as a compositional constraint. Here I find myself – at least in portions of the piece – working out the musical shapes first, then fitting text to those shapes. Of course, the musical motifs were first suggested by the rhythms and inflections of the poem, but I am letting musical considerations determine how long a section goes or what dramatic contour it projects, rather than the piece being fundamentally text-driven. I wouldn’t call it a deconstruction; what I am doing is rather more mild-mannered than that. But I can’t recall when I have treated a poem in quite such a non-linear manner. It’s a way of breaking free of a tightly circumscribed poetic form, I suppose.

If I finish this soon enough, it will be heard at the Sunday Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston, on January 26. Time to get back to work.

Rejoicing Resounding

I’m on the Acela after a fine brunch with Emmanuel Church friends Ryan Turner and Pat Krol – this after the service at which my Gaudete in Domino was premiered. As I expected, the choir did a great job.  By calling for a slightly earlier rehearsal time before the service  than usual, Ryan (the group’s conductor) got the ensemble some extra time to touch on various details of my piece. Ryan knows what he wants – a slightly different emphasis in the text, a warmer sound here, a lighter sound there – and knows how to ask for it; the choir, in turn, knows how to respond to his requests, and does so with skill and with abundant good will. The congregation at Emmanuel is uniquely trained to listen intently, having listened to weekly Bach cantatas and other great stuff for years. So they are uncommonly receptive to my music, often responding with unusually insightful comments. One gentleman this morning remarked on my setting of the words “Dominus prope est”  – the Lord is at hand. He noted that the customary reading of this line associates it with the imminent arrival of the Lord at the end of time (the scripture texts for Advent have an apocalyptic side). My setting – pianissimo, warmly harmonized, low in register – represented another reading: a sense of calm assurance about the Lord’s presence here and now.

Emmanuel Church is indeed a place where the Lord’s presence can be felt – a place where the hidden wholeness of which Thomas Merton wrote breaks into our lives. I’ll say it again: for this I am deeply grateful.

Emmanuel Music’s website here, Facebook page here.

update: My shots from Sunday’s rehearsal mostly didn’t come out well – just this one seems worth sharing:

IMG_2370 copy

update #2: Emmanuel parishioner Elizabeth Richardson was kind enough to pass along a picture taken at the post-Eucharist gathering for hospitality. Here I am (on the left) with parishioner Michael Scanlon (I dig the bowtie, Michael. There were some nice ones among the choir members as well.)

James Primosch & Micheal Scanlon

Rejoicing is Complete

I finished the motet I mentioned in my last post, Gaudete in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord). The first performance will come up very soon: it will be done at the 10 am Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church in Boston on December 16. Ryan Turner will conduct. The choir of Emmanuel Music is quite fantastic – the church is renowned for performing a Bach cantata in the context of the Eucharist each Sunday. BWV 136, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, will be done on the 16th.

Gaudete is the seventh in a series of motets I have written for Emmanuel since 1994, and you can read more about my experiences with Emmanuel here and here, among other posts. The group can do pretty much anything I throw at them, and do it beautifully.

Here’s how the piece starts:





Post-Turkey Post

Little blogging lately because I have been working on a new motet for Emmanuel Church. If I can get it done by Dec. 3, they will perform the piece at the Gaudete Sunday liturgy of Dec. 16. Here’s the text:

Gaudete in Domino semper
Iterum dico, gaudete.

Modestia vestra nota
Sit omnibus hominibus.

Dominus prope est.

Nihil solliciti sitis
Sed in omni oratione
Petitiones vestrae
Inotescant apud Deum

Et pax Dei
Quae exsuperat omnem sensum
Custodiat corde vestra
Et intelligentias vestras
in Christo Jesu Domino nostro.

which translates as (King James Version):

Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

This is from the fourth chapter of Philippians. I set this text while a student at Columbia and it was performed at a Gaudete Sunday liturgy of Columbia’s Catholic Campus Ministry. I am totally re-writing the piece, drawing on some melodic motifs from the earlier version, but thoroughly re-making it in the light of my experience in writing for chorus in the decades (gulp) since grad school, as well as the difference between the volunteer choir of amateurs at Columbia and the extremely sophisticated choir of Emmanuel Music. OK, better get back to work…

All Saint’s Day Miscellany

– Network for New Music’s season opener is this coming Sunday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 pm at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Program includes music by Ingrid Arauco, Joseph Hallman, Louis Karchin, Thomas Kraines, Andrew Rudin, Arne Running, and Robert Schultz.

– John Harbison talks about his 2nd Symphony here.

– the Library of Congress lets you see Elliott Carter’s sketches for his Piano Sonata, among other pieces,  here.

– visit The Crooked Line to read how extraordinary a place Boston’s Emmanuel Church is, and why it is not a bad idea to have an artistic director who is also a gifted tenor. I have plans for a new Emmanuel motet, too early to let on about details.

– I have just about finished setting this poem for voice and piano, again, more details later.

Boston Adventure, Concluded

Two Arms of the Harbor, my new motet, was premiered at the 10 am Eucharist of Emmanuel Church, Boston this past Sunday. In the past, Emmanuel has slotted my motets after the opening prayer but before the first reading. This time they did the piece after the first reading, in lieu of a responsorial psalm, I suppose. I am not sure this was the best strategy. The readings were very well done, but I think the music had too much expressive weight to successfully work between them. Music between the readings should not overwhelm the scriptures, which are the primary focus of that part of the service, and my piece is too emotionally hot and packed with incident to not be a little overpowering in that spot. At the time I thought about how I would not want to be doing the second reading right after the motet. The vibe in the room was attentive and I think the piece hit home, partly because of how it felt at the time, partly because of the warm comments after the service. Thank you to whoever removed their vocalizing child from the church while my piece was being done!

I was sorry to not hear the church’s rector, Rev. Pamela Werntz preach, but the visiting homilist, Rt. Rev. J. Clark Grew (a retired bishop, if I understand correctly) did well. And it was a pleasure to celebrate a baptism as well – congratulations to the Miles Family! I thought Sumner Thompson, bass, did a superb job with the cantata after communion, BWV 158. John Harbison has a good note speculating about this somewhat unusual piece. The aria with chorale – layering a florid (flaying a lurid? sorry.) solo singer with an even more florid violin obligato (Heidi Braun-Hill), a walking continuo bass and a chorale tune sung by the women of the chorus – was the quietly spectacular high point. The text of the final chorale, right out of Luther, is almost surrealistic:

Here is the true Easter-lamb,
offered up by God,
which was, high on the cross’ stalk,
roasted in hot love,
the blood marks our door
faith holds it against death,
the strangler can no longer harm us,

There was a lovely brunch after the service and coffee hour, glad to have a chance to chat with various Emmanuel friends, including fellow blogger Joy Howard, who is Rev. Pam’s spouse.

Sunday evening I attended a fund raiser for Collage New Music. The event featured some chat between the group’s music director, David Hoose, and guest Augusta Read Thomas with some short pieces of Gusty played in first-rate performances. I’m sorry I didn’t catch the name of the violinist and cellist, but the pianist was the splendid Christopher Oldfather – Chris and I go back some 20 years or more, to the first performance of my Three Sacred Songs with soprano Christine Schadeberg. His performance of excerpts from Gusty’s Tracings was stunning. Here are some pictures from the event, including a shot of Gusty and I with Gunther Schuller:


and one with Chris Oldfather:

The coda to the Boston trip was a visit to NYC for the American Music Center annual meeting. The AMC/MTC/ACF merger/re-arrangement was discussed, official decision not yet made until votes are tallied. John Harbison received an award:

Among the friends at the meeting were fellow Columbia alums Eric Chasalow (l.) and Paul Moravec:

Now it’s back to grading papers and chairmanly duties at Penn. But good to see friends, good to hear some music.

New motet premieres at Emmanuel Church

I just got word that Ryan Turner, director of Emmanuel Music, will lead the first performance of my new motet Two Arms of the Harbor as part of the 10 AM Sunday Eucharist at Emmanuel Church, Boston this coming May 1. This is a brief SATB setting of a text by Thomas Merton, a journal entry that describes a dream:

“I dreamt I was lost in a great city and was walking “toward the center” without quite knowing where I was going. Suddenly I came to a dead end, but on a height, looking at a great bay, an arm of the harbor. I saw a whole section of the city spread out before me on hills covered with light snow, and realized that, though I had far to go, I knew where I was: because in this city there are two arms of the harbor and they help you to find your way, as you are always encountering them.”

(Thank you to the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust for permission to set this text.) This comes from the 1966 volume Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, one of a series of books offering selections from the journals that Merton kept during his time as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. (More recently the journals were issued in a complete version; this text comes from the fourth volume of seven, Dancing in the Water of Life.) I find the text deeply consoling, and I have dedicated the piece to the memory of the late Craig Smith, who founded Emmanuel Music some 40 years ago, leading its performances of the Bach cantata cycle for decades.

Emmanuel Music is an extraordinary group, and in this, the sixth piece I have written for them since 1994, I know they will meet all the challenges I have recklessly set for them, and do so with grace and beauty of sound. I do like hearing my music done at Emmanuel, not just because the choir is superb. It is a place where I can bring all my “concert music” skills to bear, unlike the communities where I have generally worked as a church musician myself, where amateur choirs and an almost exclusive emphasis on congregational singing mean my composing is usually in the quasi-pop idiom that predominates in Catholic church music today. Not only is the choir great at Emmanuel, but the worshipping assembly has “ears to hear” as scripture puts it: trained to listen intently by years of hearing the Bach cantatas and similarly nourishing offerings, I know they will hear my piece with attention and sympathy. There are other nice aspects to church performance – only a few people will know I am even there, at least until the coffee hour afterwards; there is no applause, no awkward bowing, no reviewers. Applause, bows and sometimes even reviews are nice, but it is healthy to forego them once in a while. Read more about Emmanuel here, here, and here. A Merton blog I like here. Photo at left: Thomas Merton.