I arranged Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's haunting rendition of this song for Pacific Edge Voices to sing as a full group (SATB with soloists) in this year's Jazz & Pop concerts. Here is a recording and video of one of their excellent performances: June 11 at the Berkeley City Club.
Ah, me. June 23—July 1 in Brooklyn was a glorious time. For those magical eight days, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in the Choral Chameleon Composition Institute, led by the venerable conductor/composer/organist/spiritual guru Vince Peterson.
Alongside eleven other composers and two conductors, I spent every day fully immersed in choral writing, with daily classes in ear training and music analysis, master classes with a variety of choral pros, private lessons with the fantastic composer (and fellow SF Conservatory alum) Jeffrey Parola, and best of all, several days reading and rehearsing original compositions with the amazing professional core of Choral Chameleon.
I brought two pieces with me: “A Prayer In Spring,” which I originally drafted two years ago but had basically left in the bottom drawer until this week, and “O Child,” an original Christmas carol that I finished only a week before the Institute. The choir sang “O Child” in a rehearsal for me, giving me a chance to record it for later revision, but “Prayer” became the main course, and the piece that ended up in the final concert.
This school year, I've had the good fortune of serving as the kindergarten music teacher at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, where my son attends (and my daughter will attend this fall). It would be difficult to overstate how much fun it is to play music with these kids. I always leave class with a smile that lasts for days.
Yesterday, May 25, we had our end-of-year show for the parents. We performed our very own original tune, "Things We Love," with lyrics supplied by the kids, and the French song "Le petit chaperon rouge et le chasseur" ("Little Red Riding Hood and the Hunter"). Learning French alongside the kids has been a delightful perk of the job.
The kids rocked it. See for yourself!
All I can say is that the future of classical music is in excellent hands.
On Sunday, May 21, I served as one of three judges for the American String Teachers Association SF Chapter's competition finals, here in Berkeley at the Crowden School. Students of violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, or harp compete in two divisions: Youth (age 14 and under) and Junior (age 15-18). (There is also a Senior division that did not hold a competition this year.) This was my second time judging the ASTA finals, in addition to helping select finalists from a preliminary round of video auditions.
When I decided to dedicate the lion's share of my composing time to choral music back in fall 2014, I knew it was likely to be an exercise in delayed gratification. It takes time to build a body of work, establish relationships with choirs and directors, and shepherd a piece all the way from the sketchpad to the concert stage.
I'm happy to report that the first of my recent choral crop has been sung publicly for the first time. The choral ensemble Full Circle, under the direction of Jennifer Yocom, premiered my setting of Robert Frost's "Stars" at concerts in Bradford, VT and Lyme, NH on April 28 and 29.
"Stars" is one of four pieces in my cycle of SATB a cappella settings of Frost poems, from his collection A Boy's Will. I call this cycle Hymns from a Meadow: four seasons in a secluded, sacred spot in northern New England. So I am beyond delighted to have this first Hymns premiere take place in the Upper Valley of VT and NH: Frost's stomping grounds, and my favorite place in the world.
My heartfelt thanks to Jennifer Yocom and Full Circle for taking a chance on this new work, and for their hard work in bringing it to life!
Coming up later this year—here in my current Bay Area home—my frequent collaborators Pacific Edge Voices will premiere the entire Hymns from a Meadow, performing "In Hardwood Groves" and "Stars" (Fall/Winter) this fall, and "A Prayer In Spring" and "Rose Pogonias" (Spring/Summer) in spring 2018.
Berkeley choir Pacific Edge Voices will be performing my arrangement of "Hawai'i '78," the beautiful and haunting song recorded by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, in their Jazz & Pop concert this June 3, 8, and 11.
I have loved Iz's recording of "Hawai'i '78" for many years, and created this large-group a cappella arrangement while in Maui two summers ago. I'm delighted PEV will be bringing it to life for the first time.
Concert tickets and info
Hope to see you at the show!
At the end of such a bitter and stressful campaign season, I was grateful for the chance to bring some music into that final, breathless moment before the decision was made. And that night, like most in our Bay Area liberal stronghold, I was deeply disappointed by the results. But throughout that difficult night, I tried to reach deep into the well of peace that Bach had given me earlier that day. In moments of stress and worry—so often needless, fleeting, or premature, but no less difficult for that knowledge—we need to take refuge in something timeless. Something impervious to the cares of the present, immune to our fears for an uncertain future. A flower turned toward the sun, a hug from a child, a few notes written to the glory of God in a distant century: there is healing, and hope, in all these things.
Practice hard. Practice easy. Practice in front of the TV.
“We work more effectively when we continually alter our study routines and abandon any 'dedicated space' in favor of varied locations. Sticking to one learning ritual, in other words, slows us down."
—Benedict Carey, How We Learn
All of us, musicians and non-musicians alike, tend to share an image of what “practice” looks like. You sit down in a quiet room. You focus. You have concrete goals, broken down into tasks—ideally in written form—and you address each of them conscientiously. You use your metronome. It’s hard work, but you do it because you want to get better. That’s how it works, right?
Well, sure—but not always. Practice can take many forms. The thing is, we don’t commonly characterize all of them as “practice”—but we should.
There are myriad ways to practice, and as you continue to learn and grow as a musician, you will no doubt identify some of your own. Here, I’d like to discuss four modes of practice that I’ve found useful. I’ll call them: deliberate, casual, diverted, and empty-handed.
If the Jedi Academy had a choir, I'm pretty sure they would sound exactly like this.
I'm a composer. I've become accustomed to my name being the only one on the byline.
I used to play electric guitar in a band. It was the "democratic" type: everyone brings ideas, everyone's opinion carries equal weight. There are plenty of reasons I don't play in a band like that anymore. Short version: it's really hard, and if the elements are anything less than perfectly, almost supernaturally aligned, it simply doesn't work over the long haul.
But there are things about playing in a band that I miss—at times, desperately so. Chief among them is the experience of bringing in a simple idea—a few chords, a section, a rough outline of a tune—and watching the band go to work on it. Little creative inputs firing from all corners, chemically reacting over sometimes long periods of time, and as if from a chrysalis vibrating with its secret magic, that humble idea emerging as a fully-fledged song, transformed in glory.
Am I romanticizing the process a little? Maybe a little. All I know is, every time I would think, "I could never have done that on my own." Think of that song as a Big Mac. Maybe I made the the all-beef patty. Maybe even two. But the band added the special sauce. They made it delicious, man.
Fast forward many years, and I'm at work on a choral setting of a Robert Frost poem entitled, appropriately enough, "Into My Own." (Total coincidence, I swear.) The first of five movements for women's chorus and harp. I made a sketch of the piece first—a melody and a basic accompaniment. Then I sat down to flesh out the piece, and instantly suffered a minor meltdown. I couldn't hear past my melody to a three-part chorus; the harp part, which I'd thought might be about 90% finished, suddenly felt grossly inadequate.
"Maybe this is a song," I thought, "not a choral piece. Maybe it needs a band. Some kick-ass musicians who can attack this material, bring their own thing to it, make it awesome."
I wanted the special sauce.
A new band for my new vocal material? Not such a bad idea, actually. I might do that someday. But not now. Not yet. Meltdown subsided, I could see with confidence that this is a choral piece. It's just not finished yet. I've got the all-beef patty. Maybe even two. But you know what's missing. And I'll bet you know who's going to supply it.
You guessed it. It's me. I'm the special sauce, man. Mike + Time. Time to make my own chemical reactions, my own spontaneous moments of magic, transforming this thing from a good idea to a real piece of music. I'm the band. Call it Michael T and Special Sauce. And the band is getting down to business. You may not see it at the top of the score. But if this piece of music comes out the way I hope it will, you better believe the band gets all the credit.