This post was originally published in preparation for our May 2016 performance. We’re sharing it again in anticipation of the world premiere of Jason’s first two works for symphony orchestra! We hope you’ll join us Saturday, July 9, as Manitou Winds joins with the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra to premiere Ransom Lake and Platte Plains!
I have always been hesitant to call myself a composer. Looking through scraps of manuscripts saved from my college years and my high school journals, it’s obvious I’ve always aspired to be one. Thankfully, it wasn’t some misguided pursuit of fame or fortune driving me to compose. It was a spark of inspiration that often seemed to come out of nowhere — a brisk fall breeze, a bumpy bus ride home from school, being afraid of the dark — all of these stories and sensations transcribed themselves in my head as tunes needing to be written down.
As a kid, I composed tiny pieces on my tiny Casio keyboard; I never wrote them down, I only kept them in my mental repertory. In early high school, I created my own staff paper — one line at a time — using a ruler, a pencil, and some typing paper. It would be an embarrassingly long time before I discovered or had opportunity to buy manuscript books (where the staves are already printed for you!). Between my slow, uneducated process and my unending obsession with perfectly parallel lines, it’s a wonder I ever committed anything to paper at all!
All of this scribbling eventually led to an event that forever changed my life. On October 23rd, 1996, one of my compositions was performed by a local university’s wind symphony. My high school band director, who loaned me his old orchestration textbooks, urged me to enter a national composition contest and arranged for my piece to be recorded.
To properly set the scene, I should mention I’d set aside my saxophone a few months earlier to start playing oboe (poorly). Nonetheless, I had great affection for the oboe and featured it rather prominently in my composition. Just days before the recording session, the conductor called my band director to inform us the university’s oboist would not be able to perform for the recording. He was wondering if I would perform with the group. Suddenly, writing that big oboe solo in the opening few measures of the piece seemed less than inspired. Did I want to perform oboe on the recording? I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to play oboe ever again! But, it was my oboe or no oboe, so I agreed.
The big day came and I was onstage in the massive recital hall with all of these college people. It was my music sitting on their stands (all the lines were perfectly parallel). I had my cheap oboe reed and my school’s janky student-model oboe in my lap. I was trying to keep my cool while the musicians were warming up. I could hear random bits and pieces of my composition flying all over the place.
The pianist came over to me and very politely mentioned that — for my next piece — I should be sure all the beats line up in both staves for the piano part. Wide-eyed, I nodded in agreement. In time, I would also learn that dots always go to the right of the note-head and flags always fly to the right regardless of which direction the stem is pointing (or which way the wind is blowing).
Finally the moment came, and the conductor gave that first downbeat…
For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the feeling. It was as though the room was spinning while sound was coming from all around me — not just any sound, but a “living sound”. It was more than sound, it was colorful and vibrant — almost tangible, as if every particle in the air was vibrating, coming to life, glowing. The sound was more alive than anything I’d been able to imagine while making all those scribblings on my homemade staff paper.
When the time came, I played the oboe solo to the best of my ability… my warbly, reedy, sharp, unrefined ability. As much as I should have been afraid, the energy inside that swirling sound buoyed my sunken confidence, overshadowing my worries about how unqualified and unworthy I was. Music really is a miraculous thing.
I did not win the competition, of course. I didn’t even land an honorable mention. It was a national competition. I was from a very small public high school (fewer than 300 students). I’d never had an opportunity to write a large-scale piece before; my entire high school band was never more than about 25 students. I’d never had a music theory class or used music software. I had so much to learn! Rather than being disappointed, however, I was hooked: the spark from that first downbeat forever branded me a composer.
I listened to that recording every day for a long time. I kept wanting the feeling of the first downbeat to come rushing over me again, to feel that sound coming to life and coursing through me. I quickly learned it is a very elusive feeling not even the best recording can capture. Now when I listen to that cassette recording, more than 20 years later, that piece, that day, that oboist, all seem so distant, unreal. I also understand the biting, cringing feeling of regret and remorse driving some composers to destroy their early compositions!
Fortunately, among the musicians of Manitou Winds, I have found an opportunity any composer would envy: living, breathing musicians who willingly play any scribblings I place in front of them. I have the honor of learning from their experience while enjoying that elusive “living sound” far more often than I would have ever imagined.
And now I’m delighted to share my work with the entire Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Tom Riccobono. I’m excited to see how much more I can learn. I can’t wait to see where the music will take us, how far the collective energy of that many musicians can go (it’s gonna be rocket fuel!!)… and it all starts at the first rehearsal and that downbeat!
Ah, yes again, the mellow sun is cooler.
Days are short and nights are longer
by the fire of family love.
The evening speaks of hearts together now;
the harvest done, and gone to rest
for winter’s coming home.
– G. Norbett
I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent most of 2021 in prolonged anticipation. We were free from strict lockdowns, but so many beloved things were still verboten. As time passed and we all came to recognize the uneasy ache in our hearts was grief rather than uncertainty, perhaps we began to recognize what we were grieving most: togetherness.
Winter may be the singular natural force that causes us to instinctively gather. As temperatures drop and night falls earlier with each passing day, the world outside becomes less hospitable, and we’re drawn to one another for warmth and comfort. The holiday season provides us with even more reasons to come together – maybe showing we care with elaborate gifts and celebrations. But the only gifts we really need this year are love and kindness.
I don’t have to tell you we’re not out of the woods, yet. Case numbers rise, surges build, headlines rage on, divisions grow… but let’s keep on healing where we can. Let’s get together!
Whether you join us in person, online via livestream, or in your easy chair next to the radio, we hope you’ll let us give this gift to you: the gift of togetherness, presented straight from our heart to yours.
From all of us at Manitou Winds,
UPDATE: Here are a few snaps from our December 4th performance at Grace Episcopal Church, Traverse City. It was a wonderful evening spent with a wonderful audience! Many thanks to those who came out in person and those who watched us via livestream. Still to come, listen for us on Interlochen Public Radio at 1pm (EST) on Christmas Eve when IPR will broadcast the entire concert!
We have to make Christmas happen. I remember when that staggering thought occurred to me. I was 25, and it was my first Christmas in Chicago. Cold wind and nothing but darkness outside my window save for the unfeeling light of streetlamps. Sidewalks full of people, but all of us strangers.
I’d been in the city only for a few months. My life was in such disarray. I came home exhausted most days — mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was homesick, broke, and yet I was in the midst of my annual wrestling match with an old artificial Christmas tree, dredging it up from its cardboard hiding place once again.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” I asked. “Why are you putting up a tree? Pulling out all this gaudy stuff?” I kept decorating, but I kept puzzling, too.
I thought back to my childhood Christmases. Back then, Christmas always seemed to happen on its own, as inevitable as sunrise. But, that night, as a grown man hanging ornaments on my sad little tree, it finally occurred to me that my parents had made Christmas happen for me. All those years, I’d thought the “gifts” were in boxes under the tree, but the real gifts were the experiences and memories made possible through my parents’ care and sacrifice.
It really wasn’t about money. They watched the TV specials with us even though they already knew them by heart. They acted surprised each time the tree lit up with all the colored lights. They put aside their weariness and sang along. They made special meals even though it took a lot of effort and time. They helped me believe in joy by leading me through it.
My parents weren’t setting me up for some big let-down. Everyone knows life isn’t always going to be easy. But, if we can dig down deep and find even the smallest bit of ourselves to share, sometimes the joy we’re missing actually turns up, even if for just a few moments. That’s what my parents were doing: finding their own joy by sharing it with their children.
So, I decorated that year even though it probably would have seemed silly to anyone else. And you know what? That Christmas was not great at all. Things got a little worse, in fact. But, I made it through that dreadful season thanks to a very small handful of friends. And seeing the tree lit up reminded me of my family, connected me to happier times. When I let myself bob along to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, I accidentally felt a little happy in spite of myself. When the little boy turned around and hugged The Snowman before going inside, I cried my eyes out. And when “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” came on, I finally understood lyrics I’d only half-listened to before.
I guess there are some lessons we have to learn over and over. Maybe this is one of them: After all the gifts have been unwrapped, the tree put away, the calendar turned over — years after the presents have all been forgotten — it’s only the love and kindness we share that remains. It really is true: we have to make Christmas happen.
I created today’s recipe inspired by the idea of a homemade Christmas and the notion of sharing joy with family, friends, and beyond. When it comes to homemade gifts, in my opinion, bread is about as heart-felt as it gets. So long as you’re firing up the oven, remember it’s just as easy to make two loaves of bread as it is to make one. Consider passing along a little homemade Christmas to someone who may need it this year.
Father Christmas Bread
Yields 1 loaf, 12-14 slices
1 1/2 cups chopped mixed dried fruit (apricots, candied orange peel, currants, cherries, raisins, etc.)
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup whole milk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
2 tablespoons ground anise
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
zest of two lemons
1/3 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3 1/2 cups (16.25 oz) all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
a pinch of sea salt
milk for brushing
TO MAKE THE DOUGH: Combine the mixed dried fruits and the boiling water in a large measuring cup or medium bowl; soak 20 minutes. Strain the fruits, reserving soaking water to equal 1/2 cup (you may need to add additional water).
Combine the 1/2 cup of reserved soaking water with 1/2 cup milk; microwave until just warmed (about 110 degrees). Pour warm milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add next 9 ingredients (yeast through eggs); mix at low speed to blend. Add the salt and 2 cups of the flour; mix at medium speed until thoroughly blended. Switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the soaked fruits and all but 1/2 cup of the remaining flour; knead at medium speed 8-10 minutes, adding flour sparingly as necessary to keep dough from sticking to sides of the bowl.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. If still a bit sticky/tacky, knead in up to an additional 1/2 cup of flour until dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl; cover and let rise until doubled in size. (If you’d rather bake bread the next day: you can skip the first rise by placing the dough in a lightly oiled plastic zipper bag, removing the air, sealing it, and refrigerating it for up to 18 hours. The next day, you’ll need to allow the dough to come to room temperature before proceeding before rolling, filling, and shaping.)
FILLING & SHAPING: Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. You may also line the loaf pan with parchment for greater ease in removing the bread once baked (especially nice if some of the filling seeps out of the bread during baking!).
On a lightly-floured work surface, press the dough into an 8 x 6-inch rectangle. With a short side of the dough facing you, roll with a rolling pin into an 18 x 8-inch rectangle (lifting the dough, occasionally, to lightly spread flour underneath if necessary). Brush the dough liberally with milk. Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly, leaving a half-inch border on the short side farthest from you. Starting at the side closest to you, roll up the dough, pinching gently as you go to make sure it is tightly sealed. To keep the dough from stretching beyond the dimensions of the pan, push the ends inward occasionally as you are rolling it up. Once it has been rolled to the opposite edge, pinch the lengthwise seam tightly to secure it. With that seam facing down, firmly pinch the dough at both ends while tucking under to seal the sides.
Place the loaf seam-side down into the prepared pan; press lightly to flatten and even as needed. Cover top of pan loosely with plastic wrap; set aside to rise. Allow loaf to rise until it crests a full inch above the top of the loaf pan (about 90 minutes or longer if dough has been refrigerated). Meanwhile, heat oven to 350-degrees.
Bake the risen loaf at 350-degrees for 35-50 minutes, until golden brown. The baking time can vary depending on tons of factors. You’ll know it’s done for sure when an instant-read thermometer inserted at an angle from one of the ends reads 190 degrees. If the top of the loaf starts to brown more than you’d like, shield it with a sheet of foil lightly crimped to the pan. Cool in pan for 5 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.
The bread can be wrapped (whole or sliced) and frozen for several months. An advantage to freezing it sliced is the ability to sneak into the freezer and steal slices whenever you like without having to use up the whole loaf in a hurry. Those stolen slices make excellent toast whether simply buttered or spread with marmalade or jam. Slices also make legendary PB&J sandwiches chock full of holiday sparkle. The absolute best way to enjoy this bread, in my opinion, is to dip it in your favorite french toast batter, fry it up, and serve with powdered sugar, fresh cranberry sauce, and a hefty dollop of real whipped cream… a Christmas Morning brunch you won’t soon forget.
This post is dedicated in memory of my dear friend Nicole Gonzalez (1978-2019).
She was a best friend and also my kitchen buddy — patiently teaching me, challenging me, and reliably cracking me up. Seeing her smile whenever she tasted one of my recipes was better than any blue ribbon. While I have more memories of our time together than photos, for as long as I live, whenever I cook, it’ll always feel like visiting with my friend. I’m so grateful to have known her.
Manitou Winds’ 2019 Winter Songs & Carols program celebrates home, holidays, and hygge. To prepare for this year’s concert, we’re excited to bring you Comfort & Joy: a new series of musically and seasonally-inspired recipes from the Woodwind Gourmet.
My most cherished holiday memories tend to originate somewhere around the kitchen — the warmest place in the home for so many reasons! Maybe it’s because holiday baking brings the whole family together to revel in the season, telling stories, making memories, and eating all the best things. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share special recipes I hope will inspire you to rekindle old memories with loved ones or to start brand new traditions with your family.
Nollaig, is the Irish word for the month of December and also the Irish festival of Christmas. In the United States, we tend to think of Christmas as a one-day affair: a single day preceded by weeks of hurried shopping and incessant warbling on local radio stations beginning roughly the moment Thanksgiving dishes are done. Meanwhile, in Ireland, Christmas Day means the celebration has only just begun with tons of traditions and parties ahead. Nollaig begins December 24th and lasts through January 6th.
One happy Nollaig tradition is the long-awaited slicing of the Christmas Cake (Cáca Nollag) — a very special dessert whose preparations begin weeks in advance. Unique family recipes, special decorative touches, and anticipation are hallmarks of the classic Christmas Cake. With just a touch of planning, you can make this festive cake the center of your holiday celebration.
Recipes vary from family to family, but the traditional Cáca Nollag is a hearty, fruit-filled, whiskey-steeped cake topped with a layer of marzipan and covered with a sparkling white royal icing.
You’ll quickly notice none of the ingredients are exotic or hard to find. Instead, what makes this cake a marvel is its “maturing” period: after baking, it’s drenched with whiskey, wrapped, then aged for several weeks before finally being frosted, decorated, and eaten. A special sort of magic happens during the maturing period that elevates this from fruitcake (an unfortunate concoction sure to send most people fleeing from well-meaning relatives) to sublime. Maturing also preserves the cake so it can last throughout the festival — a good thing since a small slice of it goes a long way!
Click here for the full recipe!
Another original piece premiering at our 2019 A Celtic Summertide concert is a colorful quartet for flute, clarinet, guitar, & harp by our own Laura Hood! Entitled Happy Feet, it’s an up-tempo, spirited rejoinder to her quiet and serene Summer Waltz (which was included on our debut album).
Here’s Laura in her own words to tell you about her latest creation!
Happy Feet began as a fun finger-picking chord progression I used to play as a warm up exercise on guitar.
Many years ago, as I was picking away on the guitar, our son, Ian, who was about 5 or 6, began dancing along. At that time, he was obsessed with Celtic music and dancing. He loved imitating the dancers from Riverdance. So, in our living room we often had our very own free-form (always barefoot) dancer with arms at his sides, doing his own Riverdance fancy footwork. Once in a while, when the spirit moved him, he would throw in some ground spins, hand stands, or a few cartwheels off the edge of the couch. The faster the better, and—wow—could those little bare feet move!
Of course the piece I eventually wrote based on this original progression could only be called Happy Feet.
I have always thought of myself as more of a songwriter than a composer, so Happy Feet is written in a song-like structure (almost like verse and chorus). It begins with that simple chord progression which keeps returning throughout the piece—each time in a bit of a different iteration.
From the chorus-like theme, it takes several different melodic pathways depicting a variety of dance moods or dancing steps, always returning back to the original progression. About midway through the piece is a section where our dancers are having a bit of a hard time: stepping on each other’s toes, maybe suffering from one too many pints, or possibly our son just landed in a heap after one of his cartwheels. I depicted this musically by causing all the parts to crash into one another through contrary motion, syncopated rhythms, and dissonant chords. Eventually we regain balance and return to the main theme once again.
Scoring Happy Feet for Manitou Winds was a fun challenge. I heard the guitar and harp parts very clearly in my head, but the wind parts were more of a challenge. Because I am a brass player, it always takes a bit of time to begin thinking like a woodwind player: able to play so many notes so quickly and jumping from low to high with ease (something which is very difficult on horn).
It’s such a thrill to hear a piece I have written played by fantastic musicians like Anne, Sam, & Jason, and to have them breathing their own energy into it. I’m so appreciative of the practice time I know it took to be able to play all of the parts at—yes—94 bpm, and of the concentrated ensemble work needed to put it together. I’m excited and honored to share this piece with all of you.
One of the new selections on our 2019 A Celtic Summertide program was composed by Jason based on an old Irish folk tune. Folk tunes often have origins that are difficult or downright impossible to trace. Jason found his tune of choice was no exception!
“It began years ago when I bought Kim Robertson’s beautiful 2006 solo harp album Highland Heart,” says Jason. One track that caught his attention was entitled Dark Woman of the Mountains. “I really enjoyed listening to this track (well, the whole album on repeat, actually). In those days I didn’t even own a harp, so I merely enjoyed imagining what might have inspired the tune.”
Fast forward several years, and we find Jason busy hunting down the origins of this tune in hopes of arranging it for our 2018 A Celtic Summertide concert. “The album’s liner notes claimed the tune was attributed to The Roche Collection, Book I. I did several online searches, but wasn’t finding any matches nor was I confident I’d found the source material. I found several tunes with similar names, but none of them came close to the same tune!” he says.
Jason explained that, in Irish, a dark-haired woman would simply be called a “dark woman”. “Oh, there was Dark Woman of the Glen, Dark-Haired Woman of the Mountains (mountain both plural and singular), The Dark Woman, etc., in both Irish and in English. I eventually gave up my search and shelved the idea because I ran out of time.”
It wasn’t until spring 2019 that Jason tried getting in touch with Kim Robertson herself. Kim admitted she didn’t recall where she first learned the tune. Though she’d created all the arrangements for the recording, she said it was the folks at her record label who had written the liner notes. “There’s always the chance that I have the wrong title for it,” she added.
Where do you go when you have a tune that may have the wrong name? Or no name at all? If you have no other leads, for Irish tunes you might turn to one of the largest collections ever compiled: The Complete Collection of Irish Music by George Petrie (c. 1790–1866). Partially published in the 1880s then completed posthumously in 1903 (by Charles Stanford), the collection contains a whopping 1,582 tunes!
Jason embarked on his needle-in-a-haystack search by combing tune-by-tune through this gigantic volume. “It was easy to get distracted by all the really cool-looking tunes that I imagine no one’s heard for ages, but I was kind of obsessed!” he says. “By chance I decided to start at the end of the book. Would you believe I found the tune in less than 30 minutes?”
There it was in black-and-white: the mysterious tune, but under a different title (written in the old Irish alphabet). Jason transcribed it into the modern alphabet (Baint Áirnídhe faoi Dhuilleabhar na gCraobh), but he was a little unsure when it came to translating it into English.
“My Irish isn’t that great (definitely not scholarly level), and none of my dictionaries gave me the most solid-sounding translation: Removing Alarms Beneath Leafy Trees. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it? I figured there must be an idiomatic piece missing from my translation puzzle or else a poetic slant to the title.”
The entry in Petrie’s collection attributed the tune to a PW Joyce manuscript which Jason managed to track down easily with the aid of the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s website (ITMA).
Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914), a younger contemporary of George Petrie and avid collector of Irish tunes, spent a lifetime collecting and jotting down melodies in an effort to preserve the vanishing Irish culture. One of his earliest tune collections is an unpublished manuscript compiled in the summer of 1856. Joyce sent several tunes to Petrie in the hopes of having them published. Thanks to the ITMA website, Jason was able to peruse Joyce’s actual manuscript where he gleefully found the tune written in Joyce’s careful hand, but with a slightly different title (Baint Áirnidhe faoi Ghílúr na gCraobh) and attributed to a Lewis O’Brien of Limerick.
“Translating from the pages of that 1856 Joyce manuscript (removing cares/alarms beneath [the] leafy/flocked branches), I started to feel more connected to this tune even in spite of my elementary grasp of Irish syntax,” Jason says. “My excitement, I imagine, is how any archaeologist must feel removing dust and debris, layer-by-layer, to slowly unveil a lost artifact. We may never know much about the person who actually wrote this tune (was it Lewis O’Brien?), but — for me — finding this earliest known title in Joyce’s own handwriting, and pondering the imagery the title evokes was deeply inspiring.”
Jason took an old tune to heart and composed a piece for clarinet, guitar, and harp which he entitled Willow Song. “The character of this old melody has an almost mournful quality. When I hear the tune, especially now, I’m instantly brought to a place of peace,” he explains. “I feel it’s about seeking solitude and comfort beneath a favorite tree or in a forest. I imagine a willow tree next to a pond, but that’s just me. There’s a certain sadness or pain in the melodic line and harmonic motion, but there’s also the sense that this trouble is being lifted up into the branches — there’s communication between human and tree. I created a countermelody to add to this sense of conversation. I think in the music you clearly hear this healing conversation reflected between the clarinet and harp.”
A month or two after finishing the piece and while he was getting it under his fingers, Jason happened upon a digitized version of The Roche Collection thanks to the ITMA website. Francis Roche (1866–1961) collected tunes from several Irish historians (including PW Joyce) and turned their findings into volumes he published in 1912. The tune turns up in Roche’s Book I where it is entitled Dark Woman of the Mountains (where Kim Robertson’s track got its title). Unfortunately, no one knows where Roche got the title, and Jason has discovered at least one other unrelated tune with that same title. Could it be the beginning of another tune-and-title search?!
We’re excited to unveil Willow Song performed by Anne, Laura, and Jason at our 2019 A Celtic Summertide performance. We hope you’ll join us for the premiere!
Images from “The Complete Collection of Irish Music” (G. Petrie/C.Stanford) and the “Early Joyce Manuscript” (P.W. Joyce) courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive [Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann: http://www.itma.ie ].
In the summer of 2018, we performed a concert at Frankfort’s Oliver Art Center featuring traditional and original music from Ireland, Scotland, Nova Scotia, & the United States.
That August 2018 concert was such a resounding success and received such a positive response from the community, we knew we’d want to revisit the program and explore it a bit deeper sometime soon. And so, when the opportunity to give a premiere performance in Downtown Frankfort’s historic Garden Theater presented itself, it seemed the perfect time!
Saturday, September 21, 2019
The Garden Theater
301 Main Street
You’re invited to join us in another journey across the Celtic realm as we explore even more music, poetry, and legends from the many Celtic nations. We’ll be joined once again by special guest Emily Curtin Culler, soprano, plus our colorful palette of instrumental colors including harp, guitar, flute, oboe, english horn, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and horn!
The Garden Theater is a beautiful performance space right in the heart of Downtown Frankfort with comfy, plush seating for over 300! We’re proud to present this concert with FREE ADMISSION; no reservations or tickets required. You will have the opportunity to support our ensemble with a freewill offering during intermission. Your donations make all of our free concerts possible and enable us to provide fundraising concerts and events to local charities and causes. THANK YOU!
If you weren’t able to join us for the 2018 performance, here’s a sneak peek into some of the music we’ll be sharing from that program:
Trí Amhráin as Éirinn
Jason re-imagined three traditional Irish folk tunes creating a beautiful song cycle for soprano and wind quintet. Emily Curtin Culler joined us for the premiere performance in 2018. This article delves into the interesting stories behind each folk tune and tells you more about our special guest!
Down by the Salley Gardens
Some folk songs endure a strange and metamorphic journey in order to stand the test of time. This article explains what we know about Down by the Salley Gardens, plus Jason discusses his arrangement for soprano, flute, and lever harp.
In this article, we explore music written by a blind man who traveled back and forth across Ireland for nearly 50 years! What do we know about Turlough O’Carolan, and why is his music still fascinating hundreds of years after his death? Jason explains how he borrowed four of O’Carolan’s beloved tunes to create a symphony honoring Ireland’s last bard.
In addition to a few other favorites, we’ll present a handful of brand-new compositions and arrangements by our musicians Laura Hood and Jason McKinney, so stay tuned for an upcoming short series of articles telling you all about them!
This post was written in preparation for our May 2019 concert, Found Objects.
“Music takes a long time to speak—much longer than words by themselves”
—Ralph Vaughan Williams
Poetry and song have been natural companions since time immemorial, but in Western Classical music, it wasn’t until the Romantic Era (c. 1780-1910) that composers had the novel notion of marrying poetry and music in a way that made them equal partners. Romantic composers felt that when a poet expresses joy, angst or longing, the music should respond sympathetically.
Free to venture beyond the sometimes limiting boundaries of tonal harmony, composers granted themselves more and more freedom to bend music to the needs of poetic expression. Though time and style have marched on, this idealistic notion of harmonic and poetic symbiosis remained deeply embedded in the realm of art song. In fact, with the coming of the 20th century and more daring, chromatic writing, it could be asserted that this relationship between text and music has only become stronger.
And so it was late in December of 1957 that Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) spent his Christmas break poring over the expansive literary universe of William Blake (1757-1827). Vaughan Williams had been asked to compose music for a documentary about the life and works of the poet, and became so engrossed in his work that he completed Ten Blake Songs over his vacation.
Vaughan Williams selected most of the poetry for his song cycle from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The volume, representing Blake’s most well-known works, explores the contrasts between happy, fearless vulnerability (Innocence) and negative, societal and religious norms (Experience). The tenth poem was excerpted from Blake’s notebook.
“Infant Joy” (Innocence)
“A Poison Tree” (Experience)
“The Piper” (Innocence, originally entitled “Introduction“)
“The Lamb” (Innocence)
“The Shepherd” (Innocence)
“Ah! Sun-flower” (Experience)
“Cruelty Has a Human Heart” (Experience, originally entitled “A Divine Image“)
“The Divine Image” (Innocence)
“Eternity” (originally entitled “Several Questions Answered“, excerpted)
Writing music to support and convey the poetry of William Blake is no small task. To say Blake was unappreciated during his lifetime is a bit of an understatement: many of his contemporaries labeled him as mad! Both a visual artist and a poet, Blake’s works often revealed his controversial views on religion, the equality of women and minorities, democracy, and sexuality. Thus, many of his works were unpopular in his time while others remained unpublished for fear of prosecution.
Since Vaughan Williams had long proven his prowess in orchestrating massive works, his decision to score Ten Blake Songs for tenor or soprano voice and oboe reveals his personal understanding of Blake’s work. In fact, his selection of poems oscillates seamlessly between Innocence and Experience, providing the continuity of contrast intended by the poetry.
Vaughan Williams’ minimal scoring provides a juxtaposition of folk-like melodies against restless chromaticism and blatant dissonance, mirroring Blake’s poetic exploration into the contrasts of Innocence and Experience. Though deceptively simple in construction, these songs present very real musical challenges for both vocalist and oboist.
Guest soprano Emily Curtin Culler and Jason have joyfully explored these songs for our spring performance. For Emily, the delight has been mastering the chromatic musical twists, using them to elevate the texts and deepen their meaning. “I love the colors and shading of the harmonies that were clearly meant for certain words and moments in the poems,” says Emily.
Though Emily will be the only one articulating Blake’s words, both vocalist and oboist must keep a watchful eye on the poetry. For Jason, it’s been challenging and rewarding to embody the shape-shifting roles Vaughan Williams wrote into the oboe lines. “One minute you’re fairly drone-like accompaniment, then a syllable later, you’re off and running in conversation with the vocalist!” Jason says.
Manitou Winds is proud to present this classic work combining music and poetry. We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 11th, 2019, for Found Objects: a concert about finding beauty and meaning amid the seemingly serendipitous.
Inspiration can turn up anyplace, whether or not you’re searching for it. It can be found trailside on a walk through a familiar nature preserve, casually absorbed while people watching from your favorite café window, or even scribbled amid the pages of an old notebook.
Composer Tony Manfredonia and his wife, Maria, were combing through some old samples of her poetry when he found a poem that set off a spark in his imagination.
Maria’s poem, Two Roads, was a reflection on a memorable ride on Forte, an ode to her dear paint horse. Their ride had started out typically, but Forte suddenly bolted wildly, full-speed ahead, throwing Maria, and eventually coming to a halt later down the trail.
“Upon reading her piece, I had the conception,” Tony says, “this would be an awesome backdrop for a new, short work for wind quintet.” It was a serendipitous find, for he’d very recently been commissioned by the Bay View Wind Institute faculty to write a brand new quintet. “Forte was an incredibly special horse for my wife. We felt this work would be a nice homage to his life,” Tony says.
Tony went on to write a brilliant character piece for wind quintet entitled Whoa! which premiered in July 2018 at the Bay View Music Festival.
Whoa! is essentially a three-part story in musical form, but is told perhaps just as much from the horse’s perspective as the rider’s. In the first section of the piece, the ride is beginning and there’s a sense of reserved excitement as the trail unfolds before us.
Suddenly, an intense fermata gives way to a galloping ostinato as we’re sent tearing through the forest! The music, rushing past like low branches and flashes of light through the canopy, depicts danger, chaotic panic, or thrilling freedom; it all depends on your perspective! Tony built in several colorful musical effects to showcase the voices of the quintet—most notably the unmistakable neighing made possible by clarinet and horn.
The final section of the piece finds rider and horse recovering from the sudden flurry of energy. Tony unravels the themes as the music gradually fades like the slowing of a pulse. The final note—an audible punctuation mark played by flute, oboe, and clarinet—has the unmistakable air of playful mischief in it.
Manitou Winds is proud to present this exciting recent work! We hope you’ll join us Saturday, May 11th, 2019, for Found Objects: a concert about finding beauty and meaning amid the seemingly serendipitous.
Special thanks to Tony and Maria for allowing us to share their personal photos of Forte. You can learn more about Tony Manfredonia and his growing catalog of works by visiting his website.