Commissioned by the American Guild of Organists, Sojourn premiered at their 2010 convention in Washington, D.C. We’re pleased to bring this powerful work to Northern Michigan, backed by the artistry of guest soloist Thomas Bara!
1) n. – a temporary stay;
2) v. – to stay as a temporary resident
Because it’s a word seldom heard outside the discussion of lengthy travel plans, sojourn is almost always defined as the act of traveling, or a word indicating a particularly long or epic journey. In reality, however, it’s simply the act of setting up a temporary home away from home.
As creative director of Manitou Winds, I often find myself speculating about the deeper meaning and sometimes hidden origins of the music we perform. Composers ultimately create their art through music and are seldom in the business of storytelling, so this leaves me with a lot of detective work. Beyond the notes and instructions on the page, beyond the audible details of musical form at the heart of a piece, many musicians want to find an even stronger connection to a piece that touches them. Sometimes we feel we haven’t mastered a piece until we’ve understood why it was written.
Fortunately, when you’re playing music written by living composers, you can get in touch with them and pick their brains for these insights into their work. And so, I e-mailed Craig Phillips recently and asked him for more details about Sojourn.
It was during a February 2008 interview with The Diapason, that Phillips announced he had been awarded a 2010 AGO New Music Commission. As you might imagine, such a prestigious commission carries with it weighty expectations and a deadline! During the interview, he confessed he’d already begun to muse about what he might write.
By the summer of 2009, roughly a year away from the premiere, the work was still in its planning stages. Phillips took a sabbatical from his duties as Director of Music at All Saints’ Church in Beverly Hills to seek a time of rest and renewal — mental space to focus on his composing. His travels landed him in southern France’s Occitanie region in the little medieval village of Alet-les-Bains where he’d arranged for an extended sojourn. Phillips says the sights and sounds of Alet-les-Bains were direct inspiration for Sojourn.
The village is a charming destination in the region. Hugging the eastern bank of the scenic Aude River, the heart of the hamlet is steeped in history from a tumultuous past, the remnants of which are some of its most popular features.
The ruins of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Alet draw history buffs and photographers alike. The cathedral was destroyed by the Huguenots in 1577 during the early years of the French Wars of Religion in which Catholics and Protestants waged a bloody battle for the throne. The ruins are a fascinating example of Gothic architecture.
The town also boasts one of France’s largest sources of mineral water. The water of Alet-les-Bains was first bottled and sold over 120 years ago. Located near a natural hot spring, the town was also famous for its thermal spa. These days, both the bottling and the bathing have ceased commercially, but visitors still find a way to enjoy the water.
Southern France is a summer haven for many, especially writers and artists who take advantage of the slower pace of village life, delicious but simple food, and inspiring scenery set amid easy solitude. When shutting out modern distractions and interruptions, it becomes easier to access the creative impulse.
“It turns out, that first summer was a turning point in my composition career,” Phillips mentioned. “I have returned to the same village each summer since for a time of concentrated composing. I find it to be a place of inspiration and renewal each year.”
Clearly he’s onto something! Sojourn, his 2010 commission, was received with critical acclaim. Then, in 2012 he received another AGO New Music Commission and was awarded the American Guild of Organists’ Distinguished Composer Award, putting him among the ranks of composers such as Stephen Paulus, Richard Proulx, and Virgil Thompson. To date, Phillips has published over 125 works.
While a summer’s sojourn in France may be out of the question for some of us, the value of respite and quiet remains universal and an integral part of tapping into one’s own creativity. We often think of a sojourn as a distant home away from home, but it can be as close as a favorite nook on the back porch or a quiet cove in the nearby woods or a spot at the water’s edge at your favorite beach. Sojourn can be a state of mind!