Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Master Chorus Eastside's Christmas in the Northwest: Composer John Muehleisen

It’s been an extraordinarily busy last few weeks, leaving me no time to blog  But Master Chorus Eastside is gearing up for our December concerts on the 6th and 14th, which feature some exciting works by composers who live here in the Northwest, and I’m itching to write about them.  So, deadlines notwithstanding, it’s my pleasure to begin with Seattle composer John Muehleisen, creator of a beautiful and otherworldly work in our program called Invocation.

I first met John several years ago, and he struck me as friendly, unpretentious, outgoing, easy to talk to—a relief for us introverted types who find hardly anyone all that easy to talk to!  Plus he exhibited an impish sense of humor, always an appealing trait!  He showed me a piece of his, Aversion to Carrots, part of his cycle called Eat Your Vegetables!; it fit right in with a quirky concert I was planning called Sound Imaginarium, and so we performed it.  Here is the entire cycle, sung by the Central Washington University Chamber Choir.  Carrots is the middle piece, sandwiched in there between Bounty (as in the ubiquitous zucchini) and Rah! (short for Rutabagas)!

Invocation couldn’t be more different: enigmatic, mystical, Celtic in its sensibilities.  It’s part of a three-movement Christmas cycle called This Night for chorus and harp, commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers in 2003-2004.  John later  reformed it into an a capella version for Seattle Pro Musica.  The poem comes from The Carmina Gadelica, a massive compendium of folk lore and remedies, poems and hymns, legends and proverbs, charms and blessings, in Gaelic and English, gathered from crofters in the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland by a tax collector named Alexander Carmichael, and first published in a limited edition in 1900.

Here is a link to the 1940 edition, volume 3:

The poem appears on two separate pages in volume 2, numbered as if it were two separate poems but John set it as one work, linked by text and music.

God of the moon, God of the sun,
God of the globe, God of the stars,
God of the waters, the land, and the skies,
Who ordained to us the King of promise.

It was Mary fair who went upon her knee,
It was the King of life who went upon her lap,
Darkness and tears were set behind,
And the star of guidance went up early.

Illumed the land, illumed the world,
Illumed doldrum and current,
Grief was laid and joy was raised,
Music was set up with harp and pedal-harp.

God of the moon, God of the sun,
Who ordained to us the Son of mercy.
The fair Mary upon her knee,
Christ the King of life in her lap.
I am the cleric established,
Going round the founded stones,
I behold mansions, I behold shores,
I behold angels floating,
I behold the shapely rounded column
Coming landwards in friendship to us.

It invokes the presence of God and overflows with conundrum and contradiction, darkness and light, mystery and nature, all in service to the Nativity of Christ: the star (of Bethlehem? The Morningstar Himself?  Who can say?), the sun, moon and waters; stagnant doldrum and flowing current, indeed the entire world, illumined; humble Mary holding the King of life; grief laid low and joy upraised; the releasing of music; the enigmatic cleric with his ecstatic vision of mansions and angels and founded stones.

John’s music is passionate, expansive, expressive, challenging!  He uses dissonance to obscure key centers and create an atmosphere of mystery, and fluid melodies and time signatures and subtle tempo shifts to build a sense of eternity, of space and time unleashed.  But the piece isn’t formless.  He brings the music of the first two strophes to the related fourth strophe, but shortened and transformed, as is its text.  The cleric begins with a new melody, befitting his sudden appearance in the poem, but then the “illumed” music reappears as he beholds mansions and shores and angels, perhaps because his vision is equally illuminating. The “star of guidance” melody, which rises and rises in layered tiers, bears a strong resemblance to the soaring lines that accompany the setting up of harp and pedal-harp.  And in a really lovely touch, a similar music unfolds as the shapely column comes “landwards in friendship to us,” but this time inverted, moving downward from heaven, even as the star and harp music moved upward toward heaven.

The above is only a brief analysis of this wonderful work.  There is no YouTube recording, so you will simply have to come and experience it 1n December.  There will be a composers’ forum before each concert, where John and several other local composers will discuss their compositions.  May it illume your Christmas season!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Vocal Fry and the Lowest Voices in the World

A few months ago one of my chorus members asked me to blog about a phenomenon called vocal fry.  Vocal fry, popularly called creaky voice, happens when the vocal cords close tightly together except for a small area that loosely flutters, allowing air to bubble through in a kind of very low rattling or popping or creaking sound.  If you want a more technical explanation, during phonation the arytenoid cartilages compress tightly together, allowing the vocal folds themselves to become rather compact and loose.  A vibrating mass forms within the folds and air bubbles through, creating a low frequency sound kind of like...bacon frying!  There's a film of vocal fry in action about  37 seconds into this video.

Vocal fry has been called a disorder in the past, but that has been re-evaluated over recent decades (so don’t pay much attention to the sensational statements in these videos).  Most of us do it occasionally without harmful effects, usually when our voice drops at the end of a word or sentence, but that’s about the extent of it—except among (mostly) female twenty-somethings.  In the last few years vocal fry has become what some are calling a language fad mainly among young women, probably spurred by the likes of Britney Spears, the Kardashians, and other pop stars.  The 2011 study in the above video claims that two-thirds of college women use vocal fry, and like the sound!  It was a small study, but the percentage could very well be true.  Here’s a link to the abstract.  You can get to the full text there if you are interested, but it’s pretty technical.

I’ve certainly heard young women use this vocal mannerism.  Some have even speculated that young women in particular are drawn to vocal fry because it lowers their voice, makes them sound more authoritative—dare we say masculine?!  Some also connect it to a growing use of a California dialect that is marked by what is called “uptalk”—the rise of the voice at the end of a sentence that makes it sound like a question whether it is or not—the distorting of certain vowels—oo becomes eww, ah becomes very tall and produced in the back of the throat—the annoyingly frequent use of “like” and “I mean,” and vocal fry.  Listen to the first part of this video, you'll see what I mean.

But if you are reading this blog you are probably most interested in choral music and singing, and the way vocal fry has been purposefully used in singing is pretty interesting.  All of my vocal technique books refer to it, usually briefly and under various names—growl register, glottal scrape or rattle, straw bass—as the lowest of the vocal registers.  Some voice teachers use it to help singers overcome a breathy voice or develop their low register; when used at the first instance of phonation it can help the vocal folds to release tension and close completely.  But it’s the stylistic use that I find fascinating.  Listen to the bass singer in gospel quartets; he’s usually “frying” those really low notes.  Most American choirs depend on basses to “fry” subbasement notes in Russian choral music that the Russians sing so naturally.  We just don’t breed that kind of bass here!  I once tried to introduce it to the Master Chorus Eastside basses in a Russian piece, but they looked at me like I was nuts and I didn’t push it.  And Tim Storms has built his reputation on being the man with the lowest voice in the world!  He’s merrily frying away, away on down there!

Let’s go out, then, enjoying a beautiful bit of Russian choral singing.  See if you can tell if they basses are frying or not!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Value of Choir

Several months ago one of my singers sent a TED talk video to me that is right up the alley of all who value the value of choral music!  It’s an introduction and choral performance led by Tim Rhys-Evans, a Welshman as you might guess from his last name, who started a boys-only choir in Wales called Only Boys Aloud.

Wales has a long and proud male choir tradition, but as Rhys-Evans points out, that tradition appears to be fading, perhaps due in part to rampant unemployment and lack of aspirational opportunities, as he calls it.  So to buck that trend he took matters into his own hands and started a group of boys choirs, but not your typical boys choirs.  These have a pop music twist to them.  He speaks quite passionately of the need, in our increasingly virtual world, to bring people together, in the same physical space, to interact with one another, for then they enrich their communities and as well as the lives of the “lads” (as he often calls them) who participate.  And he brought along about 200 lads with him on stage to demonstrate.

He gets the audience singing as well.  We often lead audience singing as part of our Master Chorus Eastside concerts, and I believe just as intensely as he does that it is vital that we all sing together, whether we are trained singers or not.  Rhys-Evans delightfully and adroitly teaches the audience a short three-part riff to accompany the boys; he's very relaxed, playful, encouraging, even has them do a couple of minutes of warm up after their initial...(ahem!) attempt at singing.

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, watch the first four or five minutes for Rhys-Evans’s talk, and the last seven minutes or so for the audience interaction.  Notice the way he brings the audience along, and the way excitement and community build as the minutes pass.  These people are having the time of their lives, and it is singing together that does it.

Rhys-Evans charmingly breaks down what is called the Fourth Wall, that invisible barrier between performer and audience that exists at the edge of the stage.  And by so doing he brings the audience into the performance, makes them participants, and feeds their souls through artistry and sheer joy.  And the music builds a bit of community for all, “lads” included!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Alive Inside: Music and Dementia

A few days ago I saw a documentary that profoundly affected me.  It’s called Alive Inside and it’s about the liberating effect music has on people who suffer from dementia or who are confined to nursing homes for other debilitating health reasons.  It was electrifying.

My husband had heard about it somehow and showed me the trailer on YouTube.  I watched it and said, “Oh dear, I will cry.”  And that’s exactly what happened.  We went to the movie on its last night in Seattle, and as we watched both of us laughed and cried and sat open-mouthed as people who looked like crumpled dead things, who hadn’t communicated in years, who couldn’t remember their past, were given ipods with their favorite music in them.  As they listened their eyes lit up, their heads lifted, they wiggled to the beat, some even began to sing. And a few actually put aside their walkers and began to dance!  And all, almost invariably, began to talk, to remember the past, to come alive.  It’s hard to find the words to express its impact on us.

This has all come about through the work of Dan Cohen, who as a social worker in nursing homes began to observe music’s stimulation on those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.  And all by himself he began a crusade to bring ipods to nursing home residents.  It has been a long, lonely, uphill battle for him.  Elder care has been heavily institutionalized in this country and doesn’t get much attention.  But he kept bringing ipods to the elderly, seeking donations, making connections with other like-minded people, and eventually formed a non-profit, Music and Memory, that is beginning to make a dent in the need.

NPR did a story on Dan Cohen and the movie in 2012.  Read some of the listener comments below the story.  One woman writes about working with psychotic patients and seeing similar results.

If you possibly can, find a way to see this movie.  Those of us who are in our right minds and enjoy the great privilege of singing and making music have an obligation to those around us.  It’s good to feed the souls of those who are whole through fine concerts and exceptional music.  It’s also good to feed the souls of those who can’t feed themselves.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor

Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rhythm and Community Redux

I can’t resist one more blog on the community that can be created by rhythm, again drawn from the NPR series Rhythm Section: Spending a Week Trying to Catch the Beat.  This particular segment concerns probably the most famous marching song in the Army.  It first appeared in 1944 near the end of World War II and it is attributed to an African American soldier, Willie Duckworth, who wanted to buttress the spirits of his weary comrades.

It’s an infectious, hypnotic rhythm that keeps people moving together in time, which makes sense since research tells us that rhythm activates the motor areas of the brain as well as auditory areas.  But it does more than that.  As Bobby Gerhardt, a modern soldier and cadence caller interviewed in the NPR piece observed, it’s great physical exercise because you have to move and chant and manage your breath all at once.  But it also kept him moving forward and listening, eager to hear each verse so he would know how to answer back.  It motivated him to be a cooperative member of the group!

That’s part of the purpose of work songs, and Sound Off belongs to that tradition.  Although the piece refers only to the work songs brought here by slaves, they can be found in folk cultures around the world, for they ease the burden of work by coordinating group activities, and they entertain the heart at the same time.  But what appealed to me even more was the notion that impishly playing with the rhythm, creating syncopations, could put a spring in your step, make the work go faster, and set your own group apart from others.  As Gerhardt said, he liked to rhythmically push the envelope of what he was allowed to call, and that put a smile on his face.

It was group resistance to the Group through rhythm!

Here are more G.I. marching rhythms, with syncopation that pushes the envelope.

You can find the other stories from this series at

 Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

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