Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Capturing the Rhythm of the Text

TOM HALL: Now, Alberto, your text is familiar to all of us, “Cantante Dominum, canticum novum ” is the second half of this piece. It seems to me – you mentioned playing with the consonants – it seems to me that it was not only the literary meaning of the text that inspired you or led you to your musical decisions, but also the actual physical sound of the words themselves. When you take a text, any text, what is your relationship with the words?

ALBERTO GRAU: The first thing is that I should like the poem—the text. And when the text is chosen, then I start to try to imagine the rhythmic patterns of the text, and how I will construct the whole idea. But this should always be from the point of view of the character of the text. Once the text has been settled, then I start to read the text, the natural rhythms emerge and I continue.

TOM HALL: And Jorge, your texts are also very rhythmically vibrant, very powerful. They make a great impact on the listener. Do you approach your text in the same way as Alberto does? Does the sound of the words themselves, apart from their actual meaning, bear some importance to you? How do you approach it?

JORGE C"RDOBA: Sometimes I try to find the poetic significance of the words. I try to read it constantly, in this case, multiple roads to approach how I am going to set the text. I was talking to Alberto and we were talking about this upper or second level of consciousness that is activated when you are reading the text. You are not sure knowing that this is going to work when you are reading it, and then it comes to be the right text to set for your music. I was very surprised because Maria [Venezuelan conductor, Maria Guinand] analyzed my work, and I was very surprised to know that I had done the things that Maria had seen in a very precise way. And then Maria came and showed me some things that I did not know.

TOM HALL: Steve, your piece—it always fascinates me when composers of choral music choose pieces that are in the singular personal pronoun. There are many great examples of that: I think of Dominick Argento‘s “I Hate and I Love,” Kirke Mechem did a wonderful setting of “Come live with me and be my love.” And yours is in the first person—”I beg, let death come quickly.” Yet it is sung, of course, by more than one person. So many of the texts that appeal to composers of choral music are things that are very general, and use plural pronouns—”Dona Nobis Pacem.” Grant us peace. Do you ever think of it in those terms? Does it ever affect your setting of the piece, of the poem when it is in a personal pronoun as opposed to when it is in a plural pronoun that a chorus is going to sing?

STEPHEN PAULUS: This is an example of what my colleague Jorge was talking about that the less you analyze the work sometimes reveals things we didn’t even know we were doing. I have never thought about that. The thought of 40 people begging all at once rather than a collective thing adds some power—40 people begging all at once adds some intensity to it. I’m sure I have set some third person things; I’m just trying to think of them now. I’ll go home now and find out what I was doing. It is quite true that someone doing a lecture on your piece may know a lot more… One more thing I want to say about the text: I really wanted to set the text in Spanish. But Philip said, “Well, you know, we are an English-speaking choir. There will be other people who could do that very well who will be at the conference. I have two sons, and both of them have studied Spanish in school for 6-8 years, and they won’t tell me what they know, but I know they have learned something because we have been in places where they have had to use it, and they seem to have been understood at the time. One thing about my piece, the road continues. The piece did not seem ready to end yet at the last line. It is quite a quick turn about in the text, when she says, “What lover ever had so much pleasure?” It’s like she said. It just needs a certain amount of revolutions per minute for the car to feel like it’s gotten up to the right speed and it is ready to stop. So I finally got her part of my way. And so I decided to repeat this line, “What lover ever had so much pleasure? And I modulated up to a little higher key level. And then I felt it was the perfect time to introduce the Spanish phrase that says the same for several reasons. This accomplished several things. It allowed me musically to further the piece to build more excitement. Plus the musical phrase the way that I set it is really similar to the English that comes about. So that people won’t be saying, “What are they saying, what are they saying?” The line is the same; the architecture is the same. They must be saying the same line that they have repeated a couple of times in English, in Spanish. And the thing about the Spanish is, if you think about it, the Spanish seems much more loaded with excitement, and I don’t think it’s just that it is foreign. It is just the number of consonants and vowels that are coming in quick succession. So it accomplished finally a musical end, which made it as exciting as I thought it should be.