Translating A Sunset

As musicians, we translate written music—the composer’s instructions and all the technical demands—into an active, emotional experience for an audience. During our rehearsals, we often discuss where we think a piece is going—the story it’s telling, the images it brings to our minds, or the characters our instruments are becoming in the unfolding drama.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture, music is a temporal art form—art which exists only in the moment we experience it. We musicians spark a rippling effect, igniting the air with vibration, enlivening it with pulsating rhythms and patterns. It doesn’t stop there, though. Musical art is the shared experience between the composer’s plans, the musicians’ interpretation, and the audience’s imagination and spirit. Each performance is a new creation!

As both a musician and a composer, I relish the challenge of translating my personal memories, reflections, and creative musings into music. I’m honored to share my music with musicians I trust and admire—who will partner with me to create an earnest and heartfelt experience for an audience.

Last winter, on an evening drive into Traverse City, I was awestruck by a scarlet sunset. As I hurtled past the naked forest and snow-covered furrows bathed in those last few moments of daylight, I couldn’t help taking a mental picture. It was a picture of light and color as emotion and sound, of winter as a beginning rather than an end.

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I’m excited to share with you on our debut album the premiere of the musical essay (Midwinter Twilight) that grew from that small moment. The music depicts the colors of a fiery twilight flickering through bare branches along a deserted country road, and the rush of memories of all four seasons across a single landscape. Interwoven into the musical score is narration taken from my personal journal, drawing parallels between sound and light, nature and music.

On behalf of Manitou Winds, I’d like to thank you for making music with us—by being an active participant in the art we create in our concerts and by making a pledge that has enabled us to create our debut album. We truly could not make our art without you.

Sincerely,
Jason McKinney

P.S. Looking forward to visiting with all of you at this year’s Winter Songs & Carols performances where you can hear the first-ever live performance of Midwinter Twilight!

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A Celtic Summertide: Thank You!

Thank You to everyone who came out to experience “A Celtic Summertide” with us at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort! It was a lovely evening of music and art made all the lovelier by the warmth of your company.
Ellie Harold, artist
The gallery became filled to capacity before the concert began and so many audience members were asked to sit in hallways or stand where possible. Unfortunately many others had to be turned away due to legal limits for capacity at the venue.
Oliver Art Center
A Celtic Summertide by Manitou Winds
We apologize for any disappointment and inconvenience this may have caused any of our friends. As part of our planning for the next summer concert in Frankfort, we are working to secure a larger venue in the hope that you will all join us again for another wonderful evening.

The concert program was a journey across the Celtic realm with music from the Shetland Islands, Scotland, Ireland, and Nova Scotia in many different combinations of instruments.
A Celtic Summertide
We were honored to be joined by Emily Curtin Culler, soprano, who premiered a brand new collection of traditional Irish folk songs set for soprano and wind quintet.
Emily Curtin Culler, soprano
Ellie Harold, artist
In addition to the musical journey, we were delighted to be joined by Frankfort artist, Ellie Harold, who dazzled our audience by bringing a brand new painting to life over the course of the program.

Jason in Studio AJust a few days before the performance, our founder, Jason McKinney, was invited to perform in Studio A at Interlochen Public Radio and share a bit about the program and talk about working with the music of Turlough O’Carolan. You can listen to the full interview here and watch Jason performing a harp solo in Studio A on the IPR Facebook Page.

Thank you to our entire Northern Michigan community for helping to make our performance a success. We are especially grateful to all those who gave donations toward our upcoming recording project.

A Celtic Summertide: The Old Ash Tree

IMG_6442One of my fondest memories of moving to our home in northern Michigan was waking up on the morning after the move, looking out the window, and seeing the old ash tree at the edge of the front lawn. It was majestic and stately, easily setting itself apart from the scraggly ironwoods around it.

As seasons rolled by, I saw the tree in many different lights and characters, in sunlight and moonlight. It became a prominent feature in my mental map of our property. And so, when it became apparent the tree was suffering a slow death by infestation, my heart sank. We were powerless, unable to save the tree and its sisters.

The ash tree plays a significant role in Celtic mythology. The ash tree was often seen as the central column of the Tree of Life. Sometimes referred to as the World Tree, the ash was believed to be a bridge between worlds — like a cosmic axis running from Annwn (the lower world), Abred (this world), Gwynvid (the upper world), and disappearing finally into Ceugant (eternity).

When the arborists came in May 2017 to remove the ash trees, I tried to carry on with my office work. I tried ignoring the chainsaws and chippers roaring mere feet away, but it was impossible to deny the irreversible and permanent changes taking place outside. I was gradually overcome with a heavy, inexpressible sadness. Hearing a bittersweet tune in my head, I sat at my piano and wrote it down. With an uncharacteristic finality, I wrote “The Old Ash Tree” at the top.

The Old Ash Tree 1

Knowing the ash tree’s importance in Celtic symbolism and lore, I felt it was appropriate to orchestrate this tune for our Celtic concert. But while exploring the tune further — turning it over and over, adding layers, expanding themes — something unexpected happened. The metaphor behind the tune expanded beyond the ash tree to encompass my own family tree.

My paternal grandfather (Paw Paw Bryant) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease around 1997 when he was in his early sixties. Bryant McKinney Sr.The news was hard to bear, and — having witnessed the disease overtake many of his siblings — there was not a lot of hope for the future.

Paw Paw was a constant presence in my childhood — a bottomless source of encouragement, discipline, and inspiration, always making time to indulge our curiosities. He was gentle yet persistent in doling out wisdom. He was nearly always right, but rather than tell you so repeatedly, he would usually set out to prove it or suffer impressive injury in the attempt.

Always a fan of spinning tales from his childhood, he fostered in me a love of storytelling. He seldom scolded me even when it was apparent I might be exaggerating details to make my story more compelling.

One of my most vivid memories of Paw Paw is when he told me he often climbed persimmon trees to pick fruit for his mother and sisters. I was skeptical, but before I could complete my sentence, he had shinnied up the trunk of the old persimmon tree, and was readying to chuck the fruit down to me. The best fruits, he said, are in the tops of the trees, and Paw Paw was always right.

He instilled in me and my brothers a work ethic that’s unrelenting, fascinated with seeing a job through. Though he may have sometimes been the very reason we were in danger, he was also the reason we were perfectly safe and had no reason to be afraid. To my mind, he’s never aged a single year, but reality tells a different tale.

Jason with his father & grandfather Jason with his father & grandfather

It’s been 20 years since his diagnosis. While it’s nothing short of a miracle that he’s still with us, watching his slow descent into the barrenness of the disease has been The Old Ash Tree 3painful. On visits, I’ve witnessed his mind oscillate unpredictably between the present and the past. I’ve seen genuine fear in his eyes as he describes losing himself, getting lost in the woods — a place he’s known like the back of his hand. He can no longer venture out on his own.

The Old Ash Tree is dedicated to my grandfather, Bryant McKinney. In it, I hope to capture his strength, the beauty of the humble life he’s led, and his role as a central axis in my family, the main branch in our tree of life. I also wanted to portray his bravery and stubbornness, his constant fight against a disease that steals his mind inch by inch, day by day.

I’ve woven a central tune throughout the piece, similar to a rondo form. Each time it returns, it reminds me that Alzheimer’s may silence our loved ones, but it doesn’t erase them. Paw Paw hears us, but he can’t always let us know that he understands; he remembers and loves us, but he can’t always express it.

The Old Ash Tree 2Writing the piece was difficult for me because it meant confronting my grief and sharing it at the same time. Deciding on an ending was probably the most challenging moment. Our lives don’t end with neat and tidy cadences, and I didn’t think it was fitting for this piece to do that either. Instead, the central tune slowly retreats, weightlessly drifting off into the light.

When I visit the stump of the old ash tree, I still sense the space that immense tree occupied. Its roots remain, still holding the earth in place. The rings of its life, now on display, are weathered the color of stone. When a breeze stirs the slowly encroaching understory, I look up to see the opening it left behind in the canopy. Sun streams down, warming the forest floor. New saplings are slowly emerging.

The Old Ash Tree 4

A Celtic Summertide: O’Carolan Reimagined

When I began studying lever harp in 2010, one O'Carolanof the volumes of harp music I purchased was a collection of tunes by O’Carolan*. Exploring the tunes while also teaching myself to play the harp, I eventually read more and more about the composer, developing a growing curiosity about the particular tunes I kept coming back to.

Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was born somewhere in County Meath (most likely Nobber [Irish: an Obair]) during a time of unrest in Ireland. Throughout his lifetime, an ongoing struggle for power and dominance raged constantly between Britain and Ireland, Protestants versus Catholics. The country was torn apart by oppressive, unfair laws which impoverished and disenfranchised many natives. While O’Carolan’s career as a traveling composer, musician, and poet brought him into the homes of families on both sides of these conflicts, history shows he managed to have broad appeal without ever betraying his loyalties to Ireland and Catholicism.

There is scant information known of his life and career as little was documented. What we do know of his biography is largely comprised of pieced together anecdotal accounts. As a child, O’Carolan was educated thanks to the generosity of the wife of his father’s employer (Mrs. MacDermott Roe). Roughly around age eighteen, O’Carolan caught smallpox which blinded him completely. In an effort to save his future, Mrs. MacDermott Roe sent O’Carolan to a harpist where he trained for three years to become proficient.

What follows is an interesting scene. Upon completing his musical studies, Mrs. MacDemott Roe presented the 21-year-old O’Carolan with a sum of money, two horses, and a sighted guide to be his Meathcompanion. From there, he was on his own and this was to be his only option: a career as an itinerant harpist.

In a story that might have easily have ended in tragedy, O’Carolan went on to become one of Ireland’s most famous and prolific composers. Relying solely on the generosity of his patrons, for nearly 50 years he roamed the Irish countryside from Dublin to Galway and all points north composing songs and entertaining the rich and powerful. By the end of his life, he’d amassed a reputation which always preceded his arrival. He was received not as a traveling minstrel but as a welcomed friend. Weddings and funerals were often postponed until he arrived!

Most of O’Carolan’s compositions were kept alive by harpists, fiddlers, and flutists who taught them by rote to their students. Though there are extant books published during his lifetime which contain one or two O’Carolan tunes, volumes of his collected works did not begin appearing until the late 18th century. At last count, there are 214 Athenry Castleverified tunes attributed to him with several dozen others of dubious origin.

Because of the long path each of his compositions traces through history and retelling, we know very little about them other than possibly which patron they were written for and the homes or castles in which they likely premiered. In some instances, lyrics written by O’Carolan have been unearthed and matched with specific tunes, but in the absence of musical notation it’s uncertain how these songs would have been sung or accompanied. Unfortunately, O’Carolan’s works are preserved only as single melodic lines. How any of the tunes would have been harmonized by O’Carolan is literally anyone’s guess!

When I began compiling repertoire for Manitou Winds’ “A Celtic Summertide”, including tunes by O’Carolan was an instinctual decision and provided an excuse to learn more about his life and work. Seeing the bare melodies as an adventurous challenge, I selected four of my favorites, compiling them into a suite I entitled O’Carolan’s Symphony for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and lever harp.

Movement I: George Brabazon (first air)
Movement II: Lady Athenry
Movement III: Planxty Burke
Movement IV: Mrs. Power (or Carolan’s Concerto)

Click each tune name to read a brief history and see the original melodic line.
courtesy of IrishPage.com

O'Carolan in Concert

While performing in those stately homes in Ireland, O’Carolan chanced to hear the music of Corelli and Vivaldi performed by visiting musicians. Biographers say he was intrigued by their art and absorbed as much of their sophisticated style and form as he could with his limited musical education and his musically-limiting instrument. In O’Carolan’s time, a harp could only be tuned in one key and could not play any accidentals.

Rather than attempt to recreate what O’Carolan himself might have done with these tunes (which would have amounted largely to guesswork), I chose to compose O’Carolan’s Symphony in a style I felt Jason's Harpwould indulge O’Carolan’s own musical curiosity while giving a nod to the colorful anecdotes peppering the many written accounts of his life. To further aid the storytelling aspect of the work, I chose to imagine the varied personalities and daily lives of the people for whom O’Carolan named these tunes.

While maintaining respect for the form and melody inherent in each tune, I incorporated modern harmonies, added countermelodies and varied textures, changed a few rhythms… ultimately scoring the entire work for instruments that either didn’t exist in O’Carolan’s day or have evolved to a great extent. I hope the work is a fitting homage to the inspiring if not somewhat legendary life story of Ireland’s last great bard.

*There is some debate among scholars as to whether Turlough O’Carolan (Irish: Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) should be referred to as “O’Carolan” or simply as “Carolan”. Though historic record confirms the composer referred to himself as “Carolan,” as did his closest friends (completely ignoring his first name), the “O'” prefix is universally included in modern usage when formally referring to someone whose surname is preceded by it. My personal preference is to include the prefix out of respect to the composer.

For further reading about the life and music of Turlough O’ Carolan:
O’Sullivan, Donal. Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications, 2001 [1958]
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Rowsome, Catríona. The Complete Carolan Songs & Airs. Dublin, Ireland: Waltons Publishing, 2011.

A Celtic Summertide: A Story that Lingers, a Tune that Wanders

Picture the scene: The year, 1880-ish. Ballysadare (Irish: Baile Easa Dara) – a tranquil bayside village in County Sligo. The poet William Butler Yeats, who had spent many summers here as a child, returns for another sojourn. In his wanderings about the village, he comes upon an elderly Irish woman who seems to be troubled by a song she can’t remember. As she goes about the duties of her day, she sings the same lines over and over to herself, but can’t remember what comes next…

Ox Mountains, Baile Easa Dara

Down by yon flowery garden my love and I we first did meet.
I took her in my arms and to her I gave kisses sweet
She bade me take life easy just as the leaves fall from the tree.
But I being young and foolish, with my darling did not agree.

Yeats also found her song troubling, but perhaps for different reasons — he wanted to know the rest of the story! In the end, he constructed his own answer by writing a poem based on the few lines the woman could remember. His poem, An Old Song Re-Sung appeared in his 1889 volume “The Wanderings of Oisín and Other Poems”:

W.B. YeatsDown by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

— “An Old Song Re-sung”
Down By the Salley Gardens
W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

By the time it was published, Yeats had come to realize he’d written a poem about a fairly well-known song. As it turns out, the song the elderly woman was futilely trying to recall was Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure, but she could only call to mind the second stanza. The similarity between Yeats’ first stanza and the lines of the second stanza of the original song were too close to ignore. To acknowledge his accidental plagiarism, Yeats published his poem under the title An Old Song Re-Sung. However, when it was republished in 1895 it became known as Down By the Salley Gardens, a title which has firmly stuck.

And, the rest is history… except that what really imprinted Yeats’ poem in our hearts was the tune which was eventually married to it in 1909. Sadly, this tune was torn from yet another song (The Mourlough Shore, aka The Maids of Mourne Shore or The Mourne Shore) which will ever be overshadowed by the poem that stole its tune!

The Mourne Shore

A story ripped from its song, turned into a poem, and then married to a tune borrowed from yet another song — what a tangled web! Aside from revealing the transient nature of tunes (which seem to Mourne Country Parkwander effortlessly from poem to poem until they find their true destiny), what might we glean from this fable of tunes and texts? Perhaps the moral is that — in spite of the tune originally given to the words which may have been intended — we cherish more the words we forgot sung to the tune that got away.

In arranging this beloved song for our program, I sought to bring out all the bittersweet feelings from the simple but timeless poetry which Yeats wrote in an effort to finish the story the old lady couldn’t remember. To accomplish this, I call upon the 34 strings of the Irish harp, the mellow breeze of the flute, and the beautiful voice of our special guest soloist, Emily Curtin Culler.

A Celtic Summertide: The Art of Collaboration

If you’ve attended a Manitou Winds concert, recently, you’ve no doubt experienced the wonderful voice of Emily Curtin Culler. Whether singing an aria from a Baroque cantata, a classic German lieder, or a traditional Irish lullaby, Emily’s voice has tremendous dynamic range and is tirelessly light on its feet. She is a consummate chamber musician who brings sensitivity and musicality to every performance.

Emily came to northern Michigan by way of Boston. A soprano Choral Scholar with Boston University’s Marsh Chapel Choir, she performed weekly services for audiences throughout New England and around the globe via WBUR.

She’s also an original core member of the Lorelei Ensemble. Emily CullerThe ensemble specializes in performing lesser-known early music while also collaborating with living composers to produce innovative programming. (Hear recordings of Emily performing with Lorelei HERE!)

An in-demand performer and avid interpreter of new music, Emily is also a non-profit and arts management professional. Presently, she is Leadership Annual Giving Manager at Interlochen Center for the Arts and Interlochen Public Radio.

Last fall, when I began creating repertoire for “A Celtic Summertide”, I knew the program’s central element would be juxtaposing our instruments (most of which are not Celtic folk instruments) with traditional Celtic tunes. Since many of the tunes are also beloved folk songs, I couldn’t resist including a few of these. For a new collection of Irish Gaelic songs, I knew Emily was our ideal collaborator!

Trí Amhráin as Éirinn (Three Irish Songs) is a suite of three traditional Irish songs in modern settings for soprano and wind quintet. The opening song, Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn (We Brought the Summer with Us), is a centuries-old tune sung to celebrate May Day (Bealtaine) and the beginning of summertime.

Bábog na Bealtaine, maighdean an tSamhraidh,
Suas gach cnoc is síos gach glean.
Cailíní maiseach go gealgháireach gléasta,
Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn.

Doll of the May, maiden of Summer,
Up every hill and down every glen,
Beautiful girls brightly dressed,
We brought the Summer with us.

Though sources claim the text and tune originated in early 15th-century Ulster in what is now primarily Northern Ireland, we can’t be certain. The precise age of the text and whether it was always married to this tune is also a matter of speculation as Ulster Summerother versions exist alongside completely different tunes.

The song was sung by young women and men performing as “Mummers” or beggars during the Bealtaine celebration. Roaming door to door singing, they would have offered garlands of hawthorn, holly, and flowers in exchange for food and other gifts. Their garlands were believed to ward off fairies (mischievous little people) and thus bring good fortune to the recipient when placed at the entrance of their home.

I was inspired by the summery images in the stanzas (“yellow summer from the sunset…”, “the cuckoo and the lark are singing with pleasure…”) which were particularly inspiring in the dead of a northern Michigan winter. I also fell in love with the tune — it’s lilting phrases, for me, painted a lovely landscape of rolling hills and flowery glades. I employed the vivid colors of the wind quintet to bring these landscapes to life while parading the soprano’s line through them, spreading summer tidings.

The second song, Seoithín Seo Hó (Hushaby), is a lullaby whose tune is believed to predate its text. The 20th-century song collector Eileen Costello noted in her 1919 anthology (Amhráin Mhuighe Seóla) that many believed the tune was sung by the Blessed Virgin to lull the Christ Child, and so it was traditionally sung without lyrics. Costello credits the text to a Rev. O’Kelly of Galway. In keeping with tradition, alternate stanzas of the Irish lullabies are often hummed rather than sung.

While at first glance the lyrics are sweet and sentimental, one stanza warns that children are at risk of being abducted by fairies (a common theme in the folklore). Apparently, the fairies steal a child’s soul, exchanging it with an old or sickly fairy (a “changeling”) who inhabits the child’s body and soon dies.

Ar mhullach an tí, tá síogaí geala
Faoi chaoin ré an earraigh ag imirt is spoirt.
Seo iad anair iad le glaoch ar mo leanbh
Le mian é tharraingt isteach san lios mór.

Atop the house, there are bright fairies
Playing sport under gentle rays of the spring moon.
Here they come to call out my child
Wanting to draw him into their mound.

Lullaby, Mother & Baby (Roseland)A number of Irish lullabies make mention of fairies as a way of coaxing children to close their eyes — it’s believed sleeping children can’t be lured away by wily fairies. Still, it’s hard to imagine easily falling asleep knowing your only protection is that your eyes are closed!

In my setting of the lullaby, rather than capitalizing on the sinister fairies lying in wait on the roof, I chose to focus on the love poured out by this mother as she shares an intimate moment with what I imagine is her first child.

Seoithín seo hó, mo stórín, mo leanbh.
Mo sheoid gan cealg, mo chuid den tsaol mhór.
Seoithín seo hó, is mór é an taithneamh,
Mo stórín ina leaba, a chodladh gan brón.

Hushaby, my treasure, my baby.
My jewel without deceit, my share of the big world.
Hushaby, it is the greatest sight,
My treasure in his bed, asleep without care.

Unlike most lullabies, the chorus of this tune has a “soaring” quality, naturally drawing out a crescendo (the opposite of what you’d want when lulling someone to sleep!). Rather than working against this natural tendency, I set the music so that the mother becomes so caught up in her joy she accidentally wakes the baby and then coaxes him back to sleep.

The third and closing tune, Beidh Aonach Amárach (There Will Be a Fair Tomorrow), is a “dandling” song. Rather than telling a story, dandling songs are meant to be Doolin County Claresimply entertaining to sing due to the sound or rhythm of the lyrics. These are often used to amuse or distract children (in the US, popular examples of dandling songs might be “Pat-a-cake” or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”).

Appropriately, the text in this song is a back-and-forth disagreement between daughter and mother. The daughter wants to go to the fair where she intends to marry the town’s shoemaker, but her mother won’t allow it… and the daughter’s pestering ensues!

A mháithrín, an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé?
“A mhuirnín ó, ná héiligh é!”

Momma, will you let me go to the fair? (repeat 3 times)
“Darling, don’t ask again!”

In my setting, I wanted to highlight the playful quality of the lyrics and tune rather than presenting the entire text (which traditionally contains ten or more verses). I also interjected a bit of theater by adding awkward pauses and some mocking on the daughter’s part.

I crafted this entire song set with Emily’s voice in mind, and so I’ve dedicated it to her. Coaching her in the Irish Gaelic pronunciation as she painstakingly translated each syllable into IPA characters was great fun and a provided further encouragement for me to learn more about a language that has always fascinated me. Manitou Winds is honored to have her premiere this new work with us, adding her special signature to the performance!

Sojourn of Spring: Traveling Mercies

Traveling Mercies, written by Manitou Winds founder Jason McKinney, was completed in January 2018. Composing the work became both an adventure and a learning process.

To tell you more, here’s Jason in his own words:

The idea to write a chamber work for organ first came to me in May 2017 as I sat at Central United Methodist Church, Traverse City, listening to a spectacular organ recital by Bradley Hunter Welch. The organ was not a favorite instrument of mine. I CUMC organ 3had tremendous respect for it (and for organists!), but I had never had a chance to fully understand or experience the instrument.

During the recital, as we were given a tour of the newly renovated organ, I began to connect to the sound. The whole building became an instrument, and we were sitting inside it! I physically felt the raw power of chords, dissonances crashing into consonance, the dynamic contrast from roar to purr. I was amazed how an organist combines timbres as though an entire orchestra were crammed into a single console. Wind players have to come up for air, string players have to reverse their bows, percussionists have to re-strike or keep rolling. But the organ is like a singing mountain, inhaling as it exhales, sending its sound wafting over us like a mist through a forest or cascading down on us like a waterfall. fullsizeoutput_2c3b

The recital had a profound effect on me, musically. It was months before I told anyone, but I left knowing I would write a work for organ someday. Still, there were hurdles to face. For starters, I’d taken it upon myself to write a piece featuring an instrument I’d neither written for nor played before. Frankly, the instrument scares me. Hundreds and hundreds of pipes — some of them quite a bit taller than me!

Before I hoped to compose anything, I had to learn more about this singing mountain. Fortunately, I had the best organ Sherpa anyone could ask for: Thomas Bara! He loaned me reams of organ music and a copy of his album. He fullsizeoutput_2c39performed a personalized organ demonstration, explaining how various musical elements are performed and how all its manuals and stops come into play to create a unified sound. I also learned to speak its language — thumbing a glossary of strange words, discovering what the organ can and cannot do. As I pored over pages of organ repertoire, I realized I needed to understand what the individual organist brings to the music (yet more questions for Mr. Bara!).

The next hurdle was facing the blank page. My last original work was written in 2006 — more than a decade ago! When Manitou Winds came into being in 2014, I delved into my archives to dust off some of my older works, fashioning them into something better than the original. But it had been a long time since I’d faced a truly blank page.

I decided on a gradual approach by first facing smaller blank pages. I sketched musical ideas as they came to me, intuitively. Instead of forcing them into a specific context or direction, I let my mind wander, paying more attention to colors and textures. Once I’d fullsizeoutput_2c34amassed several ideas, I sat down at my piano to play through them, gradually adding harmonies but allowing even those to change whenever I felt them shifting.

Working in this freer style put my imagination into overdrive. Soon, a story about a long journey and a search for deeper meaning began to build itself into the piece taking shape. Before I knew it, I’d reached the final hurdle: sitting at the computer to orchestrate the piece for the entire ensemble (the big blank page)! By this point, I was now more eager than afraid.

The task was akin to inviting friends to a party. Composing and arranging for Manitou Winds, I’ve learned not only the fullsizeoutput_2c37unique qualities each instrument brings to the music, but also each musician’s boundaries. We do occasionally surprise one another, but I’ve come to know by heart what they love to play, what will challenge them, what they will begrudgingly play, and what they cannot play.

While orchestrating, I listened for each part to ring out. Whenever I couldn’t hear an instrument’s distinctive voice, I knew I was likely on the wrong track. I also made certain the organ was an equal part of the ensemble — neither a domineering presence nor merely accompaniment. I wanted it to seem as though Thomas was sitting in a chair next to us, taking part in the conversation rather than far away at a giant console.

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Once finished, I realized this is a tone poem about wanderlust. Hearing the call of adventure, our narrator seeks excitement and wisdom from faraway places, dismissing the concerns and well-meaning advice of loved ones. Life abroad proves to be inspiring and overwhelming, leading our narrator on an introspective journey to find himself. Eventually, the wanderer returns home to find he is forever changed.

The title, Traveling Mercies, came to me while I was still sketching in my notebook. The title has a double meaning: fullsizeoutput_2c35it evokes the special blessing travelers request as protection before embarking on a long journey, and it reminds me of a line from my favorite psalm, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). I’ve always taken comfort in the notion that mercy can be a traveling companion — following us if we allow it.

Rehearsing the new work has been tremendous fun for me. Hearing my friends learn their parts, gathering precision, weaving all the lines together… it’s not unlike watching loved ones open gifts and seeing their unfiltered reaction to what’s hidden beneath the wrappings. After weeks of rehearsing apart, finally getting to add Thomas and the organ to the full ensemble was simply magical.

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Without Thomas Bara and the members of Manitou Winds, this piece would never have been written, and so I’ve dedicated the work to them. I hope you’ll join us for the premiere.

Winter Songs & Carols: What the Stars Saw on the Prairie

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

— Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
from The Rest is Noise

When my paternal grandmother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in December 2005, I had recently moved to Chicago and was unable to travel back to Louisiana to attend her services. Having been Jason, his father, and his grandmotherdenied the chance to say goodbye was probably what sharpened my grief the most.

Her bear hugs were now out of reach, but it was a comfort to know our hearts could still communicate across any distance. She lived her whole life in Louisiana, rarely traveling more than 2 hours from home. Now freed from her earthly entanglements, I envisioned her flying effortlessly with her angel wings all the way to Chicago to say goodbye — a beautiful, healing journey before rising to take her place in the stars to watch over us.

A few years later, I was listening to music in my cubicle at work when I suddenly realized I was holding back tears. From an album entitled “A Handfull of Quietness” by Kathleen Ryan, a piano solo named What the Stars Saw on the Prairie instantly brought me back to that vision of my grandmother’s journey. I bought the mp3 and listened to it frequently; each time, it brought more comfort to me.

WinterNight

Eventually, I decided to take a bold step and try to perform this piece. I went to Kathleen’s website, but to my dismay the sheet music was not offered. Checking back several times over the course of a year, I finally built up the courage to write to her personally to ask for the music:

“… For some reason — perhaps the combination of the sound of this piece and its programmatic title — this music brings me back to that time when I had to reconcile the death of a close loved one with the knowledge that she would still be looking down on me from above. It’s a very healing piece for me, personally. Her powerful but gentle presence, I feel, is within those harmonies you put together. If you could please consider releasing the sheet music someday, I’d be very grateful.”

To my delight and surprise, Kathleen wrote back the very same day:

“Thank you so much for your very kind words. I am very touched that you find What the Stars Saw on the Prairie to be healing and to be a reminder of your grandmother. It is a very special piece for me, too, possibly my favorite of everything I’ve created. “Powerful but gentle” is indeed what that piece means to me; your grandmother must have been someone quite special.

… I’m just lazy about writing music down (happily I have a good memory!) and What the Stars Saw on the Prairie is just complex enough that I haven’t faced it yet. But since I know you would like to play it, I’ll make it the next one to be notated, how’s that?”

And so began a very meaningful collaboration with Kathleen. She wrote to me, occasionally, giving me updates on her progress of notating the piece. A rather big complication arose when just a few months after we got in touch she broke her left wrist and was unable to play for some time. Being unable able to play, notating it became impossible.

Thankfully, Kathleen persevered. Then, when Jason McKinneythe music was finally in front of me, I became faced with a tall task of my own: learning what turned out to be quite a complex piano solo — the most technically-challenging piece I’d ever attempted to play! Learning to perform it became another way of connecting with the music and with my grandmother’s memory. It took over a year, but I eventually got up the nerve to perform it for a small home recital in 2013.

Honestly, I figured this was the end of my relationship with this piece of music: I’d faced the challenge and successfully performed it. But, when I began compiling pieces for this year’s Winter Songs & Carols concert with the theme of “grief, loss, healing, & renewal” in mind, I gradually came upon the idea of arranging Kathleen’s piece for winds and piano. I saw it as an opportunity to draw out even more of the colors What the Stars Saw on the PrairieKathleen had put into the work while reconnecting with the deep meaning the piece holds for me.

I wrote to her to explain my idea, and she kindly consented to let me tinker with her creation. Over the course of a few weeks, we passed drafts of the score back and forth until we were both pleased. The new arrangement is now officially available for sale (an exciting first for me), and will have its premiere at our concert this December!

I’m deeply grateful to Kathleen for her support and generosity during this entire experience: it’s no trivial matter to turn your music over to someone else’s imagination! I’m also grateful to Manitou Manitou WindsWinds. Rehearsing this has been an intense, emotional delight; their musicianship bringing these lines to life.

Collaborating for this project reminded me what little control we have as composers, arrangers, and musicians over the effect our music will have on each listener — and how wonderful it is to not have control of that! Music reaches out to each of us in unique and surprising ways, touching our hearts even amidst times of grief when words remain hopelessly out of reach.

Variety: It’s the Spice!

Our September 24th concert was an experiment: a test to see just how much variety could be crammed into a single concert program performed by a single ensemble. To up the ante, we also added an element of chance; allowing the audience to play a game to randomly select the concert order.

Twelve different instruments and one guest musician later (Eric Olson, alto & tenor saxophone), we wound up with a concert that ran the gamut from Handel and Mozart to Hoagy Carmichael and Stevie Wonder! Here’s a list of the selections in the order they were performed:

Overture from “The Barber of Seville”           G. Rossini/arr. B. Holcombe
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

Playground           H.A. Curtis
piano solo

Contradanza from “Three Pieces for Clarinet & Piano”           P. D’Rivera
tenor saxophone

I. Allegro from “Horn Quintet in E-flat Major”, K. 407           W.A. Mozart/arr. B. Holcombe
flute, english horn, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

Royal Garden Blues           C. Williams & S. Williams/arr. Ken Abeling
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

Sir Duke           S. Wonder/arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

The Nearness of You           H. Carmichael
tenor saxophone & piano

III. Brazileira from “Scaramouche”           D. Milhaud/arr. D. Stewart
piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, horn, & bassoon

Ancient Pines           L. McKennitt/arr. J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, & lever harp

I. Natalie Fraser (hornpipe) from “A Suite of Cape Breton Tunes”           J.T. McKinney
flute, clarinet, & lever harp

Summer Waltz           L. Hood
flute, clarinet, guitar, & lever harp

Cranberry Island           D. Tolk
piano solo

Overture from “Music for the Royal Fireworks”           G.F. Handel/arr. T. Cramer
flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, & bassoon

To facilitate this colorful program based purely on variety and fun, we enlisted the aid of Jan Ross (aka Janice B.), voice-over artist, and our production manager, James Deaton (aka. J.D), to co-host the concert as a game show. Janice B. and J.D. selected audience members at random to come forward and randomly select the concert order. Those audience members were then entered into a special prize pool for a chance to win one of three prizes.

Adding even more flair to the event, we were joined by guest artist, Lori Feldpausch, who brought a dazzling array of paintings from her home studio to create an elaborate exhibit in the church’s narthex.

We were honored to be a part of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church’s “Concert on the Hill” series, and we’re delighted to have played a part in raising funds for Habitat for Humanity of Benzie County and Northwest Michigan Supportive Housing.

Manitou Winds in the media!

2016 was a dynamic year for Manitou Winds — many opportunities to get out into the community and share the intimate quality of chamber music while also spreading imagination, creativity, and inspiration through visual art from our collaborating artist, Ellie Harold.

In April, Jason and Ellie were invited to go on air with the Christal Frost show on WTCM 580 AM in Traverse City’s Radio Center to discuss our spring concert. Jason had never been on the radio before! Microphones and cables everywhere… it was quite an experience.

Manitou Winds & Christal Frost
Manitou Winds at WTCM

In November, Ellie and Jason were interviewed by Allison Batdorff of the Traverse City Record-Eagle. We were gearing up for 2016’s Winter Songs & Carols concert, and also reflecting on the year’s collaboration with Ellie. You can read the full article HERE.

Manitou Winds at the Oliver Art Center
Summer Fantasies Concert

In December, Jason and Ellie were interviewed by MINews 26’s Marlaina Scarbrough, spreading the word about what makes chamber music so unique and describing our efforts to bridge the gap between visual and performing arts.

We’re certainly excited about 2017 — our new collaborating artist (Margie Guyot) plus plenty of upcoming concerts. We hope you’ll be able to join us in May for “Music Speaks…”. Stay tuned for more details!