They All Saw A Cat … Coming to New York in June 2018!

I’m terrified (and delighted) to announce that I’ve been commissioned by the Mormon Arts Center in New York City to create a new concert work for the toughest audience I know of: kids! Real, distractible, fidgety, painfully honest, joyfully noisy, future-of-civilization-type micro-humans.

My mission: to adapt Brendan Wenzel’s terrific book They All Saw A Cat for chamber ensemble with narrator and projected imagery.  If you haven’t read this book (with or without a kid on your lap), you should. Not only is it a New York Times bestseller and a Caldecott honor selection, but it’s brimming with vibrant, inventive imagery and rich with meaning. (I’m grateful to have been introduced to it by Rachel W., the fearless and all-knowing juvenile reference librarian at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, and to have been granted permission for this adaptation.)

This piece, which intends to be a modest addition to the tradition of Peter and the Wolf, will premiere in June 2018 at the Mormon Arts Center Festival in New York. And, yes, real human children will be in the audience!

Fanfare … for Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music

I was pleased to read the following review of Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of Fanfare magazine.  It’s reprinted here with permission.


A. MAXFIELD For the Future1. I love the passing light2. Here where the World is being made3. Stay Home2. The Little Stream Sings3. Not again in this flesh4. A gracious Sabbath stood here5. The Seed is in the Ground3. The Necessity of Faith4. Whatever is foreseen in joy3 — Wendell Berry (spkr); 1,3,5Brady R. Allred, cond; 1,3,5Salt Lake Voc Artists; 2,4Rex Kocherhans (bar); 1Katie Davis Henderson (fiddle); 2Andrew Maxfield (pn); 2,4,5Aubrey Woods, 4,5Alex Woods (vns); 4,5Claudine Bigelow (va); 1,2Nicole Pinnell, 4,5Michelle Kesler (vcs) — TANTARA 0317 (43:34)

 

This is a heartfelt tribute to the work of the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. In 2012, composer Andrew Maxfield visited Berry in the poet’s Kentucky homestead, and recorded a number of poems read by the poet himself. These form the spoken tracks here which preface Maxfield’s settings. The performances of Maxfield’s works are by the 40-strong chamber choir the Salt Lake Vocal Artists, an ensemble of preternatural tightness, and the excellent baritone Rex Kocherhans for the solo numbers. Apparently the recording sessions were blighted by extra percussion, the sound of rain against the roof of the recording venue; no trace of that in the beautifully finished recording that is presented here.

Berry’s poetry speaks of a return to grass-roots values of neighborliness, and caring for the environment we live in. The simplicity of these aims, and the artful simplicity of Berry’s writing, is mirrored in Maxfield’s pieces.

These recitations of the poems are delivered at the perfect pace and with a proper sense of depth of meaning. After a resonant reading of For the Future, the choral setting is rhythmically vital, accompanied only by the stamping of the singers’ feet and the careful addition of a solo fiddle. The end is miraculous, a perfect choral diminuendo into nothing, like a gentle extinguishing of the light.

The next poem, I love the passing light, is set for baritone and piano trio, the strings adding an extra stratum of sepia to the poetic Rückblick. There is a practicality, an economy of expression, heard in both the text of Stay Home and in its music. Maxfield’s setting of Stay Home is again for baritone and piano trio: he withholds the entry of the strings effectively, before allowing them a magical moment to meditate on the song melody. The string playing is particularly fine in Stay Home. Scored for baritone and, this time, string quartet, The Necessity of Faith is infiltrated by a Copland-like sense of openness; congruent with this is the almost folkish nature of the melodic line.

The beautifully understated spirituality found in the text of Here where the World is being made (with its poignant second line, “no human hand required”) is reflected in Maxfield’s setting. The calm demeanor of the music, the female voices initially carrying the argument over a hummed male voice background is most effective, and the standard of the performance is splendid. Listen to the choral enunciation of “ache” at “the ache of human love”. It is perfectly judged, and perfectly captured, too, in the pristine recording. Choral textures are excellently balanced by conductor Brady R. Allred.

The incredibly telling text to the poem The little stream sings, whose seemingly harmless title seems to point to a Schubertian innocence but in fact belies a poem that talks of Death and “our freedom to kill”; “there is no death,” we are told, on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. It is an incredibly deep poem, perhaps reflecting that the stream, which is “the water of life,” holds the key in its natural innocence. The Salt Lake Vocal Artists trace the emotional trajectory of Maxfield’s remarkable setting with rapt concentration. “Death is our illusion” they sing, and somehow, we believe them. The poem Not again in this flesh is another reflection on mortality; its setting, for baritone and string quartet, is superbly judged by Maxfield, the poem’s trajectory tracked on a very deep emotional level. Kocherhans’ legato and his sweet high register (used very effectively here) underpins the work’s aura of reflection.

Scored for choir and string quartet, the tender A gracious Sabbath stood contains some outstanding violin playing, particularly from violinist Alex Woods. From the pithy The Seed in in the Ground, Maxfield grows a five-minute choral setting that is marked by its profundity as well as, in performance, its supremely balanced textures.

The way the poet delivers the final phrase of his poem Whatever is foreseen in joy with such artless simplicity and straight truth that it feels impossible for any setting to do it justice (the final lines are “When we work well, a Sabbath mood / Rests on our day, and finds it good”). The setting begins by isolating the word “joy” (not, in fact the first word of the poem, but the key one) before the lines unfold. The syllabic chordal passages have a tremendous tender sense of wonder to them: “Great work is done while we sleep” says the poet, and Maxfield’s setting reflects the mystic side of night. The setting ends with a radiant choral explosion on the word “joy” itself, replacing that sense of straight truth the poet brought; an interesting, and stimulating, juxtaposition of readings of the same text.

If pushed, I would express a preference for Maxfield’s choral settings over the solo vocal items. The choral pieces seem to penetrate further into Berry’s richly layered emotions, while there is, perhaps, a touch of the musical theater to Rex Kocherhans’ delivery.

This disc presents a wonderful introduction to the world of Wendell Berry, supported by an expert booklet. A most fascinating release. Colin Clarke

Taking The Bridge to Kingsbury Hall in November 2018

I’m delighted to announce that UtahPresents has commissioned the exclusive premiere engagement of The Bridge, a contemporary ballet I helped to invent, produce, and write. This official premiere will take place for three nights in Kingsbury Hall (the University of Utah’s flagship, 2,000-seat performing arts center) in November 2018, produced in collaboration with SALT Contemporary Dance and NYC-based choreographer Brendan Duggan.  Continue reading “Taking The Bridge to Kingsbury Hall in November 2018”

Something New (Novi? Novum?) for Voces Novae

I’m delighted and grateful to announce that I’ve received a commission from the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition. Thanks to this opportunity, I’ll be writing a three-part work for choir and small chamber ensemble, which will be premiered in November 2018 by maestro Frank A. Heller III and my lovely friends of Voces Novae in Louisville, Kentucky. My deepest thanks to all involved. Now, let the fun begin!

Voces Novae 2013 premiere of selections from my “Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music” project

One Household, High and Low

I’m happy to announce that Santa Barbara Music Publishing Inc. has published my choral piece, “One Household, High and Low.” Wendell Berry wrote the text, and I wrote the music in the style of the Sacred Harp / Shape Note / Fasola tradition. In fact, part of the opening phrase is derived from the Sacred Harp tune “Wondrous Love.”

From the SBMP website: “. . . this one really cooks. The melody lies in the tenor, and can be doubled at the octave as can the soprano part, thereby creating a delightful six parts. The Wendell Berry text ends ‘and all the earth shall sing. May it be so!”

Get copies for yourself or your choir now: Purchase sheet music here.

HEY! If you purchase a copy or write a review on the SBMP website, please let me know. I’d love to send you a recording of the piece as a thank-you!

Contributing

My uncle once surprised me by telling me that farmers don’t grow crops. “Farmers grow soil,” he explained. “Soil grows crops.”

I’m three generations away from my own family’s subsistence farming, and so the idea was news to me. But I began to see in my uncle’s point of view the important theme of contributing.

Read the rest on my Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music project blog.

Investing in Karma

I’m sure there are small-minded, selfish, nasty composers in the world. And I’m probably one of them more often than I realize. But lately I’ve benefited from encounters with a number of composers whose considerable talents and accomplishments seem to be matched only by their warmth, kindness, and generosity. Naming names feels inappropriate, but here are a few snapshots:

  • The chair of Composition at a major West Coast university, who made time to listen to my music and review my scores. He treated a stranger like a friend, provided constructive criticism, and was a terrific sounding board. Why? Just because I asked.
  • A retired distinguished professor of choral studies, who has spent several hours meticulously examining my recent choral pieces. He’s careful to ask questions that cause me to learn and intuit my own path forward. And he is candid and straightforward and deeply kind. When I asked if I could pay him for lessons, he declined. Why? Because, instead, he asked me to “pay it forward.”
  • A busy, happening, young (i.e., my age!) L.A. composer who has made time on several occasions to provide advice and encouragement. He seems to assume that there’s enough opportunity in the world for everyone and is quick to offer connections and open doors. Why? Because he was grateful for breaks extended to him along the way.
  • A distinguished British composer who, at a recent convention, introduced me as a peer and made efforts to connect me to many of his colleagues and to his publisher. Why? Because he feels it’s part of his job as a composer to nurture others.

Perhaps being a little glib, I’ve printed the following notice in several of my album projects: “Unauthorized duplication, while convenient, isn’t very neighborly. Invest in art.”

Neighborliness cuts to the center of it, doesn’t it? In encounters large and small, I’ve met acquaintances who have treated me like friends, and now we’ve become “neighbors” in a creative community. I think that implies a certain kind of mutual necessity and a willingness to come to one another’s aid.

Investing in art—maybe that means “investing in karma” by paying forward small kindnesses when opportunities arise and seeing a world that only grows bigger when we open doors for others.

I’m not sure artists can produce art in the long run without these boosts along the way.