Letter to SI Chamber Singers, Fall 2014

In the spirit of “Dear People” the book by Joseph A. Mussulman that compiled letters Robert Shaw wrote to his choirs, I wanted to share some thoughts I had about this particular piece with the 2014-15 Chamber Singers in November 2014. At the end, there is a video of us performing the piece at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, CA on Friday, December 19, 2014.

Hello gang,

I sat in a soprano and alto sectional a few weeks back and was struck at the very simple question Ms Hollow, one of our vocal coaches, asked the gals, “what does Resmiranda mean?”. I came in towards the end of the sectional and it was obvious that they learned what the phrase meant (wonderful circumstance and/or happening).

I have been personally drawn to this piece and text for quite some time now. This recording we have is by a high school group my wife sang in when she was a senior in high school (Vintage High School Chamber Singers ’94). Her teacher eventually became my graduate school mentor – this is a great story in itself, but back to the story at hand.

There is No Rose is an English carol that dates back to the Middle Ages c.1420. The text is written in two languages: Middle English and Latin. Most fascinating to me are the marriage of musical elements with the rich allegories infused in the text. This idea of “little space” which is Mary’s womb, where heaven and earth meet, and how it interweaves the Latin of the Church with the English of the common people — as if interweaving spiritual and secular themes, symbolically, through the use of two languages. And finally, the phrase Transeamus or let us cross over is set to just about one of the most amazing clips of choral music around. Let us cross over. Where is it that we begin and where do we move to? Is the choral ensemble a bridge for all that is human and all that is divine?

Honestly, I truly believe this is music. It is a vehicle, a bridge, for all that is divine and all that is human in the hopes that in the center we catch a glimpse in either direction. There are pieces of music out there that are simply transcendent for me. Occasionally, an ensemble emerges through days of interviews, hours of auditions and of course time spent with one another that are capable of not only re-producing what’s on the page – musically and vocally) – but are open enough to peek into all that is possible from the page: You are this ensemble.

You all have the potential to unlock the mystery of this piece and share with your audience. Having said that, it does require note/rhythm accuracy, attention to phrasing and all the musicality that is required by any piece of music, but it also requires a vulnerability, a clear picture of how this piece sounds and feels when it is right in you. There is No Rose is one of those pieces that helped me confirm that this guitarist wanted to stand in front of choirs and make music with one another. Those stories my wife shared with me my first years teaching, and this particular recording helped me conceive what is possible by a group of people who are drawn to a) the collective effort b) those in the world that think and feel.

playing on Garage Band

After a short demo on Garage Band, I let my Music Appreciation students play and experiment for the remainder of class. This is what I came up with:

What it means to be American

Eddie-Van-Halen.2.12.15On Friday, February 13 Edward Van Halen was honored as part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History program “What it means to be American” that seeks to explore the American experience. I can honestly say that I would not have a career in music if it weren’t for the influence of Eddie Van Halen on me as a guitarist, musician and innovator. I’m glad to be alive and witness to his legacy that is being honored for what I’ve been saying for years now.

When I was eleven years old, one of the first albums I purchased was Van Halen’s 1984. I had heard songs Jump and Panama on the radio, but when I listened to the B side, I was drawn to the gems near the end of the record: Girl Gone Bad, House of Pain, etc. What I would later come to realize, but could not articulate at the time, this album would essentially encapsulate everything that Eddie had accomplished as a rock guitar icon and song writer to date: the clever pop hit Jump featuring his first instrument – the keyboard, the now infamous two-handed tapping technique in Hot for Teacher, sampled sounds such as his Harley Davidson as an intro on Hot for Teacher, or the Lamborghini engine revs in Panama, and finally a song writing that reflected his maturity coming into full bloom paving the way for the lyrical work yet to come in 5150.

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In any conversation about the guitar, particularly in rock music, one cannot have this discussion without including Eddie Van Halen’s innovation and technique as it relates to the evolution of the instrument. After Jimi Hendrix, Eddie’s concept and approach to the guitar transformed the way we play the electric guitar. In 1978 listeners had no concept or explanation of what they were hearing from that now iconic second track from their debut, self titled album Van Halen in the composition Eruption. Below is a complete video of the interview at his induction ceremony:

After watching this, I’m reminded of the fact that Edward Van Halen is by no means a perfect human being. There are his quite public personal struggles with alcoholism, a failed marriage to actress Valerie Bertinelli and other well documented personality clashes with the singers of Van Halen. However, I think the real miracle here is that this man is still alive and growing more and more comfortable with terms “living deity”, icon, and innovator. How many of these artists have come and gone before leaving this world far too early: Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Curt Cobain, etc.?

My hope is – and this is simply in his DNA or not – that Eddie Van Halen will use this opportunity to demystify his persona, use this status and notoriety to share his story with more audiences. While it is true – Edward Van Halen will undoubtedly be included in conversations hundreds of years from now and his name in the history books as one of the geniuses of the art form. The real gift is in the form of this new founded generosity and humility of becoming comfortable in this role as a genius living among us in the present.

Listen: SI Chamber Singers on iTunes

I’m actually quite pleased with this project which is a culmination of some very special years with my students from the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers. The CD is a culmination of choirs that features songs recorded in venues from around the world! A majority of the tracks were recorded on the 2nd “In the Footsteps of St. Ignatius” European choir tour at the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa Maria in Tolosa, Spain.

St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers

Preview songs from Listen by the St. Ignatius College Preparatory Chamber Singers on the iTunes Store