Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rhythm and Community

I am always intensely aware of the rhythm of text, not just in music, but in the very words I write.  Whether in this blog, or concert program notes, or a message to a friend, there is a constant rhythmic word dance unfolding in my brain. 

It even waltzed along as I composed my doctoral dissertation.  You’d think a dissertation would only encompass straightforward academic writing, but I still wrote with the beat of words, syllables, clusters of phrases and sentences, in mind.  I suppose it’s the musician in me.  I can’t escape rhythm, and I don’t want to!

It was interesting, then, to hear, in the NPR series called Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat, a story on the cadences built into political speech writing.  It seems that speech writers consciously build textual rhythm into political speeches.  And there is a reason for that.  According to Rob Kapilow, a composer and conductor who is quoted in the story, rhythm can create community: for instance, a crowd chanting at a football game, or people dancing as one to a pulsing beat.  (It can even set up negative community, for as I read Kapilow’s words I had a sudden chilling image of old newsreel footage of Germans in World War II chanting “Sieg heil” as Hitler rolled past in parade!  There was community there too, but of the worst kind!)

For example, President Obama’s speech writers actually figured out ahead of time how many beats they wanted in the first paragraph of his 2008 Iowa caucuses victory speech.  In the first sentence they created an eight-syllable phrase, or four iambs, as journalist Ari Shapiro points out.  Same cadence in the second sentence.  Then they varied the pattern, but always with a sense of repetition, of mounting tempo, until the climax arrived with its rolling rhythms, “We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come,”

As an exercise in rhythmic rhetoric (no politics here!), listen to the first 1 minute and 40 seconds of Obama’s speech that night.  Listen to its measured beat, to the ebb and flow of phrases.  You can hear what the speech writers, and Obama himself, did with the cadences, and the community of joy they created in that moment.

Don’t we as choral musicians frequently experience that kind of community?  In my concerts with Master Chorus Eastside I try to bring our audience into this as well.  During last May’s Out of Africa concert I invented a rhythmic word play exercise to do just that.  I divided the audience into four groups, taught each group their own short, spoken rhythmic phrase, then layered it up one phrase at a time, played with dynamics and structure, built it to a climax, and before I knew it, we became a single, vigorous, happy community.  It was amazing!

I had always thought that the act of singing together created choral community, but now I think it is collective rhythm as well.   As Kapilow says, we are all looking for an opportunity to step outside of a “me” and become a “we.”  Now isn’t that a beautifully rhythmic, and true, idea!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rhythm and the Brain

The connection between music and our bodies fascinates me, and I’ve blogged about it several times in the last couple of years. This interest was awakened again in June by a series that ran for a week on NPR called Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat.  The stories examined the hidden rhythms that affect our lives, and one of them, about rhythms in brain cells, caught my attention.  Now I love rhythm, so this is irresistible stuff.

It seems that each individual brain cell has its own firing pattern, its own rhythm, some faster, some slower.  As neuroscientist Nathan Urban put it, each one is like a little clock, with its own built-in frequency.  To avoid brain chaos, cells synchronize their rhythms to accomplish tasks.  For example, when a mouse explores a new space, neurons in the navigation area of its brain begin to pulse together in rhythm.  This works because whenever two cells synchronize their rhythms, the connections between them are strengthened!  Doesn’t that sound entirely human?  And innately musical.

The actions of all living things are built on systems of rhythms, circuits of nerve cells that fire in sequence, activating muscles in repeated patterns, such as when we walk—pick up a foot, rock forward, put it down, pick up a foot...—or when a fish propels itself forward with its swishing tail. But many of the details of movement happen in the nervous system, not the brain itself.  It acts as a kind of grand poobah, sending out a command to the nerves something along the lines of “activate the walking rhythm.”  This is even true of motions that don’t appear to be rhythmic at all, such as reaching for something.  Isn’t that wonderful?  And so we walk, or reach, or drive.  In rhythm!

Until something goes awry with the cellular rhythms.  Beats fall out of sequence, cells can’t synchronize, with heartbreaking results: Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, epilepsy.  But many Parkinson’s sufferers find temporary relief in music or dance classes.  A Parkinson’s patient noted that sometimes, when someone has trouble walking to a class, she’ll get them to hum a tune with her, a waltz maybe, or a march.  And they begin to move to the beat, and lo and behold, they can walk!

Revel in the idea that all of life is buttressed by rhythm!  It’s irresistible, maybe a little like these synchronizing metronomes!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Monday, July 21, 2014

In the Arts, Self-Protection Kills, Collaboration Gives Life

A year ago I attended an invigorating Chorus America conference here in Seattle.  For those who don’t know about Chorus America, it is a non-profit that provides services to choral groups of all kinds—professional, volunteer, children’s, you name it—on how to stay viable and healthy.  This can include advice from experts on board development, marketing, recruiting singers, and more.

At one conference session I learned that for arts organizations, self-protection or fear of competition from like arts groups, such as other choruses in our case, is deadly.  It kills growth.  Surprisingly, when similar arts groups collaborate in all kinds of ways, not just in performances, growth can happen for all.  And there is research to back that up.

For example, people who attend multiple arts events tend to come back time after time to performances.  One study of seven opera companies in Philadelphia showed that although only a small percentage of their audiences attended performances by more than one opera company, 85% of those were repeat attenders; in other words, they came back again and again.  The patrons who only attended a performance by one opera company were much less likely to return.

So these Philadelphia opera companies decided to try something daring.  They advertised each other’s seasons on their web sites, complete with a map pointing the way all the opera companies.  They looked competition in the eye!  And a funny thing happened.  Competition blinked!  Audiences for all the companies went up!  It was a rising tide that floated all boats.

With this in mind, three of my fellow choral conducting colleagues and I who operate in the suburbs east of Seattle: Bellevue Chamber Chorus, Cascadian Chorale, Kirkland Choral Society, and my own Master Chorus Eastside, have begun working together in a more dedicated way.  For the first time we have listed one another’s seasons on our web sites.  We are exploring commissioning a new composition to be premiered in a collaborative performance by our four choirs.  And we have ramped up just a bit a shared experience that we’ve carried on for years called Eastside Sings, which is a sing along of a major work on four Tuesday evenings in July, each Sing led by one of the four conductors.  We all also belong to the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium, which works to promote the choral art in the larger Puget Sound metropolitan area.  We held an amazingly successful choral festival last fall.  And we also advertise all member performances in member’s programs.  We end up blanketing the area!  It’s a wonderful way to build relationships, help one another and boost the choral arts at the same time.

So be a choral arts supporter!  Here are web site addresses for all four of us:

Bellevue Chamber Chorus

Cascadian Chorale

Kirkland Choral Society

Master Chorus Eastside

Attend performances by these fine choirs, or by choirs in your own neighborhood if you live somewhere else.

It’s a small beginning.  But we hope the impact will be big!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

So Just How Old Is The Star-Spangled Banner Anyway? Part 2

Last week I wrote about the surprising history of The Star-Spangled Banner’s melody. The history of the lyrics is just as fascinating.  It’s worth putting the whole picture together because the marriage of words and melody during the War of 1812 created our National Anthem as we know it today.  Or did it?

War broke out between Britain and America in 1812, and in 1813 Britain, the superpower if its day, blockaded the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and began carrying out raids along its shores.  In one of those raids, August of 1814, in one of the most embarrassing defeats of the war for the United States, the British burned Washington D.C., including the White House.  As a member of the Georgetown militia Francis Scott Key witnessed the burning, and his wife and children actually had to flee the city.

The citizens of Baltimore could see the glow of the flames on the horizon, and as the third largest city in the country the inhabitants knew they were next!  So they set about fortifying their city and harbor as fast as they could.  If England could take Fort McHenry at the mouth of Baltimore’s harbor, Baltimore would fall.  And if Baltimore fell, the country would likely fall!

A few weeks later, in September, Key was dispatched to sail down the Bay to find the British fleet and negotiate the release of a prisoner that the Royal Navy had captured; he found the fleet just as the British were preparing their attack.  He successfully negotiated terms of release, but the British refused to let them go quite yet because Key knew battle was about to begin.  So, in the famous story, beginning on September 13, Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, quite possibly in the front line of the battle from the deck of his own small boat.

With England’s superior fire power and ships it was basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of our Iraq War Shock and Awe.  Fortunately the American fortifications kept the fleet far enough away to limit the damage somewhat.  Nonetheless it was a frightening sight, with rockets and mortar bombs raining down on the Fort, and the light of the explosions flickering on the dark, rain-laden clouds.  But towards dawn on September 14 the bombardment stopped!  Was it because the Fort had fallen? If so, the Stars and Stripes would be replaced by the Union Jack.  Key peered anxiously through the glimmer—whose flag was flying?  Just then the rain stopped, the rising sun cleared the clouds, and a sunbeam shone like a beacon on the American flag, still flying high over the fort.

 It took awhile for Key and all the Americans involved to realize that the mighty British Empire had given up!  The fleet was withdrawing!  Against all odds the Americans had won!  Baltimore, and soon the nation, was delirious with joy.  And Key was so moved by it all that he wrote his famous words to fit the tune called, in America, Anacreon.  It became immensely popular, and after decades of debate over which song we should adopt as our National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was so designated on March 3, 1931, by act of Congress.

So, end of story, right?  The Star-Spangled Banner will be 200 years old this coming September, 2014.  Except that the song as we sing it today is not exactly as 19th-century Americans sang it: some of the rhythms in the early version are different, the dotted eighth/sixteenth-note beat so typical of martial music is smoothed out, and the signature descending triad on the first words, “Oh, say, “ so familiar to us, is simply not there!  It begins quite simply on the tonic, or “do.”  Amazingly, the triad doesn’t begin to appear in publications until after 1910, almost within the living memory of some Americans!

So just how old is our National Anthem?  Well, as the National Anthem it is only 83 years old.  The tune itself is quite old, 239 years. Who can say exactly how old the Anthem as we sing it today really is, since it has changed a bit over the centuries?  But as The Star-Spangled Banner, an expression of national pride and unity, Key memorably brought music and words together 200 years ago this coming September, and that is a date to be celebrated!

You can find out more about the anniversary by visiting And the next time you sing the Anthem, savor the rich history behind it.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

So Just How Old is The Star-Spangled Banner Anyway? Part 1

Well, that depends on which portion of it you are talking about.  There is the tune, there are the lyrics, and there is its status as our National Anthem, all of which rolled onto the world stage at different times.

And why does it matter?  The 200th anniversary of the writing of The Star-Spangled Banner is coming up in September.  This is a big deal, a chance to appreciate our history and our music, and Master Chorus Eastside will commemorate this anniversary as part of our Celebrate America concert on June 29th.

Let’s begin with the tune.

Most people don’t know that Francis Scott Key composed only the lyrics, not the melody, of The Star-Spangled Banner.  The tune actually began life in 1775 as the anthem of a gentlemen’s amateur music society and supper club in London called The Anacreontic Society.  Anacreon was a Greek lyric poet who loved to write about drinking and women.  Homer wrote about gods and heroes; Anacreon wrote about romance and drinking; guess who is remembered today!

Anacreontic Society meetings began with a two-hour concert, followed by a late supper, group singing, and multiple toasts.  The meetings combined a great deal of fun with good quality music making, and it became known as THE place to be every other Wednesday evening at whatever London restaurant they chose to meet at.  The club anthem, in six rather silly verses, calls on Anacreon to be their patron and inspirer, and the refrain became an excuse to toast one another.  The myrtle of Venus, as mentioned in the refrain, was a symbol of romantic love for the ancient Greeks, but for the Anacreons it stood for the friendship and unanimity of the club.  Bacchus’s vine, also mentioned in the chorus, needs no interpretation.

The melody became highly popular and a convenient vehicle for many a lyric, so much so that nearly everyone forgot its origins.  By 1791 it had arrived here in America, just in time to become the favorite tune for all kinds of texts, especially commemorations of patriotic figures and events.  In fact, by 1820 it had been used for more than 85 different poems, including one written by Key ten years before he wrote The Star-Spangled Banner!  Key’s early version even uses some of the same words and phrases that appear in his later lyric.

The melody itself, then, is close to 250 years old.  Keys poem came along more than fifty years later, inspired by a climactic event during the War of 1812.  More on that in my next blog; the story is wonderful, and makes our Anthem come to life in a way that I hadn’t really understood before.  And its path to acceptance as our National Anthem is typically American: disagreement, the machinations of politics, and the voice of the people.

More next week!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Biblical Lamentations & William Billings' Lamentation Over Boston

Master Chorus Eastside is deep in preparation for our fun and informal All-American Independence Celebration in honor of July 4, and I’ve become fascinated by the connections between one of our pieces, William Billings’ Lamentation Over Boston, and the Bible.  There is a kind of hidden message here, maybe not too surprising in light of its Revolutionary War context, but one that sheds some light on Billings and his music.

Billings (1746-1800) was a Bostonian, a tanner by trade, and a self-taught singing master in colonial America.  As singing masters did he set up singing schools that taught residents how to sing and read music, with a kind of graduation concert at the end of a three-month term.  And as singing masters also did, he wrote his own instructional materials, called tune books, that overflowed with distinctive choral music.

Billings was America’s first noteworthy, native-born composer, and the first singing master to publish tune books wholly devoted to American compositions, mainly his own.  Several of his tune books were immensely popular, especially as resistance toward British overreach began to heat up in the Boston area.

Several incidents in Boston inflamed public opinion against the Crown, such as the Stamp Act of 1764 (England’s attempt to increase revenue through its overseas colonial investments), and armed soldiers to guard customs officials in 1768.  Some considered these soldiers an occupying army.  But the Boston Massacre of 1770, in which British troops fired upon an unruly crowd and killed five colonists, was the final straw, and led directly to the opening rounds of the Revolutionary War in 1775.

Billings was in the right place—Boston, the birthplace of the Revolution—at the right time—the beginning of the war—to make a name for himself, and he proceeded to publish several tune books that contained virulently anti-British sentiment.  And in one of those tune books, The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), appears Lamentation Over Boston, words by the fiery patriot Samuel Adams.

Psalm 137 begins the psalmist’s lament over Israel’s captivity by the kingdom of Babylon in this opening verse:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

And here is the first line of Billings’ lamentation over the captivity of Boston by the British Empire, set as a dirge:
“By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Boston.”

A river, weeping, remembering, a captive people, a tyrannical kingdom: the three-syllable Watertown even matches the three syllables of Babylon!

A bit later the poem paraphrases Jeremiah 3:21, “A voice was heard upon the high places, weeping and supplications of the children of Israel,” in this wise: “A voice was heard in Roxbury which echoed thro’ the Continent weeping for Boston because of their Danger,” decorated by Billings with various “weeping” motives.

It seems that Roxbury is known for its hilly geography!

Billings draws inspiration from Psalm 137 one last time in these final flights of poetic fancy from Lamentation Over Boston:
“If I forget thee...Then be my Muse be unkind, Then let my Tongue forget to move and ever be confin’d; let horrid jargon spill the Air and rive my nerves asunder, let hateful discord greet my ear as terrible as Thunder.  Let harmony be banish’d hence and Consonance depart; Let dissonance erect her throne and reign within my Heart.”

And here is the model, Psalm 137:3-6:
“For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.  How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

Billings paints the text in several clever ways: a long note on “move”, symbolic of an unmoving tongue; tumbling eighth notes above “rive my nerves asunder;” dissonances at “hateful discord;” open fifths over the last word of “let harmony be banish’d hence,” for example.

Clearly for Billings music was his chief joy; it could only dissolve into discord and dissonance, as he illustrates, should he forget the captivity of Boston.

In our day Adam’s paraphrases coupled with Billing’s music may sound overheated, a little incongruous, but they also hold a kind of primitive power.  Billings’ emotion was strong and real, and the language of the Bible was a lofty way in which to express his deepest feelings.  And the hidden message was clear: God was on America’s side!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Early Black Gospel Music: The Blues in Sacred Dress

In preparing for Master Chorus Eastside’s Out of Africa concert, a celebration of African and African-influenced American music, I came across some wonderful Youtube videos of early gospel singers.  It set me thinking about the difference between old-style black gospel (early 20th century), and the modern version that has become so popular.  And I learned a couple of things I didn’t know.

Black gospel music owes much to two influences, both “outsider” in essence: the late 1800s Holiness movement and, surprisingly, the blues.  In its early years black gospel was really the sacred counterpart of the blues.  The blues can be traced back to the rural South  in the 1890s.  Blues are a lament, often about relations gone awry between a man and a woman, sung by a loner, an outsider, dealing with trouble.  The Holiness movement was Pentecostal-style, ecstatic, often noisy worship that flourished outside the mainstream black denominations.  In early black gospel the trouble is still there, but the Jesus who also suffered provides solace.

Listen to this 1925 recording of Bessie Smith, one of the great blues singers of the past, singing St. Louis Blues, an early blues hit.  Listen to the tempo, the blue and bent notes, the lamenting voice.

Now listen to the Heavenly Gospel Singers in Jesus Walked This Road Before, from 1978: same tempo, same singing style, same kind of lament, this time sung by a quartet who turn suffering and trouble into a virtue.

These men represent a tradition that I suspect has mostly faded away.  They saw their heyday in the 1920s-1940s when African American composers, led by Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues pianist who played for Bessie Smith, brought gospel music, along with some elements of the Pentecostal Holiness movement, into mainstream black denominations.  Modern black gospel has mostly moved away from this tradition; while remaining sacred in subject it has been shaped more by the concert hall and entertainment music than its gritty blues beginnings.

MCE is performing a modern black gospel number at our concert, Praise His Holy Name by Keith Hampton.  We love it; it is bright, energetic and lots of fun to perform.

But that early gospel number, sung by those four men from deep in their being, wrapping the experiences of a lifetime around their lament, really moves me.  It is elemental, soulful...earthy!

Enjoy one more sacred blues number by the Heavenly Gospel Singers.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside