About this Recording
8.559607 - WACHNER, J.: Choral Music, Vol. 1 (Elora Festival Singers, N. Edison)

Julian Wachner (b. 1969)
Complete Choral Works • 1


As a composer-conductor perched between the Apollonian world of church music and the academy and the Dionysian world of opera and the stage, my compositional process has enjoyed the benefits and challenges of drawing on these two historically diametrically opposed world-views. In Bach’s time this tension was articulated between pietistic and orthodox elements of theological understanding—in the nineteenth century Nietzsche’s seminal work on the Appolonian/Dinoysian dialectic The Birth of Tragedy fanned the fires of Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk, and in the twentieth century Ned Rorem famously transformed this philosophical dichotomy into a simple statement: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the entire solar system is torn between two aesthetics: French and German…virtually everything is one or the other.” For North American composers, then, it was virtually essential throughout the twentieth century to belong to one of these aesthetic camps, as articulated by the followers of Schoenberg versus the followers of mid-period Stravinsky.

For me, I always found this a difficult decision to make, and thus found myself living and working in the no-man’s land between pure post-Impressionism and post-Expressionism—composing music that was criticized as “too simple” from one camp and “too complex” from the other. As I have always considered my compositional process and philosophy to be aligned with the assimilators of previous eras, (Bach, Stravinsky and Foss come to mind)—I have found equal inspiration from strict form or unbridled chaos; tonality, modality or post-tonality; and lyricism, pointillism or minimalism—I find it crucial to have as sweeping a palette of creative possibilities at my disposal as possible, believing that this desire is no different from any composer of the past.

Of the current selections on this disc, no work better illustrates this juxtaposition as clearly as the Rilke Songs. This descriptive excerpt from a recent review in The Choral Journal is a typical example of analyses of the dichotomy and contradictory aesthetic principles informing my compositional process:

Wachner’s settings are text driven and completely immersed in the descriptive color of the native tongue in which the Rilke poems are set. Thick and dense textures give way to unison and simple four-part homophony. Wide tessiture are explored but not exploited. Bitonality permeates much of his writing style. Although his writing can seem dissonant, it is imbued with a soft sense of tonal color that embraces Rilke’s fascination with the flow of the movement of animals and more important, the deeper meanings of the text.

Die Gazelle [The Gazelle] is a through-composed piece reminiscent in style to the music of Whitacre and Lauridsen with performance indications of “expansive and full.” The final section of the piece is an analogy between a gazelle standing in rapt attention and a woman bathing in a forest lake. Julian Wachner does a masterful job of setting the text with the use of strict canon at the unison in three of the voices. The other voice is at the fourth. The result is an amazing picture of peaceful stillness as the tempo indication of quarter note equals forty-four and “quasi misterioso, meno mosso” suggests.

Der Panther [The Panther] is centered in G minor and never ventures far from it. Tessitura and dynamic ranges are very minimal with a tempo indication of a quarter note equals 56 and “triste.” It leaves one with the feeling of entrapment as the animal endlessly paces back and forth behind the iron bars of its cage.

Die Flamingos [The Flamingos] is set for double chorus and is in ABA form. Chorus II begins with the sopranos on a rhythmic and melodic pattern of quick sixteenth notes in which the text is repeated over and over. The basses enter with the same text and rhythm but now with an inverted melody. Altos enter as the sopranos did but on a different pitch and the tenors enter as did the basses. The key center stays in F major. All entrances are pianissimo and the resultant cacophony is impressive. Chorus I proclaims the remaining poem in long held notes above the “noise.” The B section is mostly homophonic and text driven, which then begs for the A section to return to the shrieks of sound and flashes of pink feathers!

Thus my music lives in a sound-world that seeks to balance harmony and melody, movement with stasis, simplicity with chaos, and contemporary techniques with unabashed borrowings from the past. As my teacher Lukas Foss often said to me of his process: “I want everything hitherto invented, currently being invented, and those ideas to be invented—available to me as compositional possibilities and choices.” In this way, musical languages and aesthetics themselves become specific options of technique. The challenge therefore, is to ride this wave of self-proclaimed eclecticism with sincerity, individuality and spontaneity, writing music that speaks to the human condition and makes a contribution to the art form.

Sometimes I Feel Alive was composed during the summer of 1998 at the Tanglewood Music Center, where I was conducting the BUTI Young Artists Chorus. I had been fortunate enough to have been housed in a beautiful cottage right on the Stockbridge Bowl, and my enclosed porch looked right over the water. It was on this porch, in this idyllic, bucolic setting that I composed several works including this choral song-cycle. The work had been commissioned by Allison McMillan in honor of her husband’s fiftieth birthday, and was given its première by the Providence Singers in the 1998-99 concert season.

E.E. Cummings’s erotic poetry was rich with compositional possibility and the work came very quickly, indeed the third song, somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond was composed in just three hours in the middle of the night with the sound of crickets and the soft lapping of the lake as background. The cycle’s energetic opening movement literally depicts the sexual act, with musical depictions of arousal, seduction and climax. Over the past ten years performance history of this work, there has been infamous commentary on the relatively short length of this movement. The second movement grabs the energy of the first, but transforms this primitive energy into a more sophisticated understanding of attraction, thus setting the stage for the sophisticated depiction of selfless and unconditional love of the last movement. In this eight-minute cycle, an entire snapshot of the process of young love is presented.

Sometimes I Feel Alive has won several prizes, including the Cambridge Madrigal Singers Choral Competition and the Greater Boston Choral Consortium Composition Prize. It has been performed throughout North America including at University Voices (Toronto 2002 and 2006), ACDA Conventions (Los Angeles 2004, Providence 2002), at various all-state events, and by various regional choirs—both amateur and professional. It was also a featured work for the Canadian National Youth Choir Tour to the Maritimes and at Podium 2008.

If the compositional process of Sometimes I Feel Alive was effortless, improvisational and free in its Dionysian sound-world—the process for creating the six Rilke Songs was tortured, drawn out, studied, constantly revised—and finally incredibly personally satisfying.

Commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Newton Choral Society, their music director, David Carrier, presented me with several volumes of Rainer Maria Rilke from which to choose the text for this twenty-minute a cappella work. The study of the various texts and research into various schools of interpretation of this milestone poet consumed the first year of the compositional process, from 2000 to 2001, and musical work began in April of the latter year. The work was presented to the chorus that Fall, and they gave the première of the work in November 2001. Following this performance, I revisited several of the movements and completed final revisions by mid-2002.

This work also bears the same elements of lyricism as the more accessible Cummings set, but the focus here is on creating a larger structure, and making an appropriate musical companion to the metaphoric nature of these anthropomorphically rich texts. Drawing upon many compositional techniques including canon and fugue, the harmonic language of the work follows a very old-fashioned, archaic, even baroque methodology, where each piece has an individual key signature—and the entire work follows a systematic voyage through a symmetrical presentation of key areas beginning in the rich “flat” side of the circle of fifths and ending on the bright and shimmering “sharp” side. With the overall structure of B flat major—G minor—F major—A minor—F sharp minor—A major, the piece follows a kind of rhetorical harmonic progression one might expect to find in the Passions of J.S. Bach. Within this strict framework of tonality, the music itself wraps around this archaism with moments of modality, bi-tonality and jazzy dissonance.

Sections of my 1987 Missa Brevis were sketched while I was still a boy chorister at the St Thomas Choir School in 1982 and 1983 and were then put on the shelf while I explored punk, rock, new wave and electronica in the New York City of the 1980s. From 1984 to 1986, I had written dozens of songs influenced by The Cure, The Smiths, and The Eurythmics, and was enjoying a slightly bohemian existence as a student/chef/rock musician in Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Brooklyn. In many ways the completion of this short Mass was the beginning of my re-entry into classical music, and elements of my mature harmonic language are already obvious in this young work. At the same time, there are very clear borrowings from popular new-wave music, particularly in the Sanctus movement, where one could simple overdub a ballad and have a little UK-style pop song. This piece has retained its popularity over the years and is an appropriate selection for this first volume of my complete choral music. The first performance of this work was presented at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel in October 1988 under my direction.

In 1990, upon hearing of the death of my childhood idol, Leonard Bernstein, I immediately wrote the hymn-tune Tanglewood in his honor and memory. Following the traditional scansion of 87.87.D—it is a tune that can match about half of the hymn texts currently in use. In 1992, I took this hymn tune, paired it with Come, thou fount of every blessing, and made a choral arrangement with an a cappella alternate harmonization second verse and a third verse descant. This setting has become very popular with church choirs, as it has a simple lyricism, soaring melody and descant, and an effective, expansive crescendo to the end. Looking back, it is clear that Anthony Furnivall’s setting of Amazing Grace and Harold Friedell’s Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether were the sub-conscious models for my setting. (As a boy soprano, I had participated in the première of the Furnivall in Buffalo, and regularly sang the Friedell at St Thomas.)

The Introit for The Season of Epiphany and Aaronic Benediction from 1992 are examples of the occasional, Gebrauchmusik I was writing on a weekly schedule for Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. Sensing I lacked discipline, the Dean of the Chapel, the Rev. Robert Watts Thornburg set as part of my duties as Music Director the regular composition of music for service use. This was the greatest gift I ever received, for it provided me with a veritable laboratory for compositional experimentation with a relatively willing band of student accomplices, both vocal and instrumental. This requirement also provided me the opportunity to receive weekly criticism and commentary from the listening congregation and radio audience, the majority of whom were non-musicians, but music-lovers. I learned my craft, then, very publicly with a few disasters along the way, but also managed to create a number of works that still remain in my catalogue and enjoy current performances.

In 1998, I began a new musical partnership with conductor Jennifer Lester, founding music director of Boston’s Seraphim Singers. Jennifer and I formed an organ duo and presented many concerts and created several new arrangements of orchestral repertoire for organ four hands, four feet. In addition to this fun and fruitful collaboration, Jennifer commissioned several large-scale works from me including my Regina Coeli for chorus and orchestra, my Second Song of Isaiah for choir a cappella and a setting of Arise, my Love in two versions, solo voice and organ—and choir and organ. It is the version for organ and choir presented here. For me, composing a setting of this selection from the Song of Songs without the ghost of Healey Willan looming about was both the challenge and salvation of the compositional process, for in actively avoiding any of his choices, I was able to come up with an alternative viewpoint for this magical and timeless text. Ave, dulcissima Maria is one of the middle movements from Regina Coeli, and is an intentional wink to the trecento period with its use of the mediaeval “Landini” cadence. The antiphon frames a more contemporary harmonic language, thus bridging the past with the present, illustrating the universality of this Marian prayer.

The final work on the disc is also the most recently composed, Behold the Tabernacle of God from 2003. Commissioned by the Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Cumberland, Maryland, this work was composed during my first year as Music Director of the Church of St Andrew and St Paul in Montréal and betrays a bit of my new city and all of its wonderful French color. Particularly in the impressionistic and virtuoso writing for the organ, the work stirs up images of grandeur and splendor, evoking the energy and rejoicing that accompanies the dedication of a new edifice: celebrating the new while referencing and respecting the past.

Julian Wachner

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