So I just recently finished an arrangement of "I Wonder as I Wander" for The Master Singers of Eau Claire, WI. Gary Schwartzhoff, conductor, asked for an arrangement for their 2016 holiday concert, my first duty as Composer-In-Residence for the ensemble. A couple of quick things.
I am not a admirer of "Christmas" in the way that most people may be. I find it, in its current state, to lack a tremendous amount of depth; ultimately neglecting the full scope and scale of the Christ narrative. It is hard for me to identify with "O Come All Ye Faithful" when it completely neglects the reverence one feels when they link birth-----> crucifixion. Morbid. I know. But that's how the story goes.
Also, I find myself completely worn out with our current "Christmas Canon". It amazes me that we somehow keep playing the same ol' hits every Christmas season. As if when 1990 came around everyone just said, "Yea... these 30 hymns are enough to sustain us for the next millennium". Now, many 21st century composers are writing new Carols and Hymns for the season, but those don't their way past the doors and into the pews in Iowa. Though I wish they would.
So....... how do I arrange a carol to my liking, when I don't like any carols. Besides Wilberg's "The First Noel" (OMG IT IS SO GOOD). The answer........ find a neglected piece of holiday music that makes mention of the Christ story in that way that I prefer..... the sobering one.
John Jacob Niles' "I Wonder as I Wander" woefully and awfully fits my bill sent to God in a series of disgruntled internet scourings.
Here's a bit of the text,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
In my estimation..... profoundly deep, human, and existential. Perhaps not directly questioning the narrative of Christ itself, but the nature of sacrifice, of suffering; thus, closely mirroring my own thoughts.
With any arrangement I intend to reimagine the original work, while maintaining its ability to be recognized.
See stanza two...
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
The light from a star promises what is to come. A story of compassion, understanding, grief, suffering, forgiveness, and perhaps most importantly, a life that runs its course. As is the case with all of us.
I sought to paint the force of light descending upon our plane. Projecting the "promise of ages", the Christian story. Many descending textures are used to create the weight of the narrative and its transcendent relation to mankind. A story's ability to shape and mold culture and civilization manifests itself in the shifting of keys and meters and textures.
Perhaps this is an obvious extrapolation when one reads this text, I am not claiming brilliance here. What I am trying to do is approach these words in a way that enlivens their ability to broaden the lens of Christmas music so that we as people recall "the end of the story". Say what you want about it. But I use choral music as a means to relate to my own circumstance in life. Although this piece has a home in the liturgy, I find is so refreshing to be thinking, pondering.... questioning the difficulty closely linked to being human, even during the holiday season. We all suffer. Be it in small ways, or ultimate ways. I can't appreciate good unless it is relative to bad......
Rationalizing pain is a defining human quality, things happen and we deal with them. So too did Jesus and so too does the church.
Will my intention to create an awareness of the macro-narrative come across in this 4' octavo? Who knows. Does it work for me? You bet.
On a side note, I am listening to Urmas Sisask, "Oremus" right now. This is an amazing piece and I first learned about it listening to Dr. Joe Miller speak on the "Westminster to-go Podcast".
Apparently, the piece was used in Westminster Choir's tour, "The Invention of Love". Miller ties it into the program by associating Sisask's knowledge of the planet's and their orbits in relation to one another. Sisask reduced the measurements from object to object, resulting is a five-note scale that is used as the basis of the work. C#, D, F#, G#, and A are prescribed to the be the "Sound of the Universe". The piece itself is staggeringly gorgeous and so acutely depicts the slow stasis of planets spinning. What this has to do with "I Wonder as I Wander"? There is a probably something here.... but not tonight!
Until next time!