The inspiration for our May 2012 program, “Making a Mess,” was Elizabeth Alexander’s zany, bluesy, humorous piece “Why I Pity the Woman Who Never Spills.” Once I knew that I wanted to create a program that would feature this piece, it seemed only right to embrace the central idea of the poem; that making messes is something to be celebrated. Although we will certainly be singing about tragic messes as well as funny ones, the essential spirit of today’s program is a celebration of stains, debris, mayhem, and chaos.
We start with two pieces about shipwrecks: one that ends well and one that ends badly. “The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie” is a folksong from Newfoundland, Canada, telling the story of the S. S. Ethie, a mail and passenger ship that operated between Labrador and Newfoundland. On December 11, 1919, the ship ran aground in a bad storm and sank off the west coast of Newfoundland. Remarkably, all 92 passengers and crew were rescued, including a baby who was sent ashore in a mailbag. The passengers and crew were saved by being hauled off the ship, one by one, up to a neighboring cliff while sitting on a bosun’s chair (a plank dangling from a triangle of ropes.) The lyrics to our musical rendition of the tale are by Maude Roberts Simmons in an arrangement by Canadian composer Donald Patriquin. Patriquin is particularly known for his use of folk music and folk motifs in his own compositions, as well as for his folk music arrangements, of which this is one. He often employs mixed meters, syncopation, and flashy, energetic piano accompaniments, so be sure to listen for our pianist in this arrangement!
“Frobisher Bay” is also a song about a Canadian shipwreck, but the story does not end so happily. Directly north of Newfoundland and Labrador, the setting of our previous piece, lies Frobisher Bay, which is part of the Davis Strait area of Canada. Whaling began in this region in the 17th century, and did not stop until the 20th century. It was a dangerous occupation for many reasons, one of which was the threat of being caught in the ice of the frozen sea over the winter; if this happened, survival was far from assured. This song was written by James Gordon, who is one-third of the Canadian folk trio Tamarack. Gordon is currently one of Canada’s most prolific singer-songwriters, and this piece is his most famous, having been sung by groups all over the world.
Our next three pieces are catches from the latter half of the 18th century. Though much ink could be spilled on the difference between a round and a catch, a round is usually one melody that can be successfully started at regular intervals to create harmony; in a catch, the harmony is created by three or four separate melodies that also often reveal an added verbal meaning when the lines are combined. Of our three composers, little is known about J. B. Marella and Joseph Baildon (1727-1774) whose catches come to us through musical anthologies of the time. Thomas Arne (1710-1778) was much more famous, being the most well-known composer of English theatre music in the 18th century. These three catches illustrate three different scenarios that are just as chaotic today as they were a few hundred years ago: namely, trying to organize singers to sing a catch together,; politics,; and a traffic jam after a play in the city. (Surely today’s equivalent might be Fenway after a Red Sox game.) In the first catch, be sure to listen for the singers bickering with each other – the group trying to start the piece can barely sing a phrase before the other parts leap in with “That’s wrong!” “You’re too fast!” “You’re too slow!” “Watch me, I’ll beat the time!” Surely this piece will sound like a familiar situation for anyone who has tried to organize an impromptu song among amateur singers.
“Three Ways to Vacuum Your House” is by Stephen Hatfield, who lives in Vancouver and is known for incorporating varied multicultural influences into his choral music. These pieces are a splendid example of his style; Part II borrows musical ideas from Reggae and tonalities from Brazil and Lebanon, while Part III steals from Peru, travels up towards Mexico, and then veers into Scotland for an energetic finish! (We will only perform two of the three movements today, one in each half, as we prefer not to spend too much time cleaning up after ourselves.)
“The Blue Eye of God” is by two Canadian women, Barbara Powis and Nancy Telfer. The text was written by Barbara Powis, a poet from British Columbia who died of cancer in her mid-forties. Her poetry often vividly illustrates themes from the natural world. The musical setting is by Nancy Telfer, a Canadian choral conductor, educator, and composer. Telfer expertly portrays the living, leaping nature of the subjects of the poem through repeated rising figures underneath a floating melody, and through the use of sound effects at the beginning and end of the piece. The words and music together create an intense and anguished warning about the dire harm we are currently causing our oceans and their inhabitants.
The next piece brings us back from the global down to the extremely personal. “The Dove Pursues the Griffin,” by Ashi Day, is a setting of Helena’s speech to Demetrius in Act II of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena is in love with Demetrius, who was previously engaged to her but now shuns her in favor of her best friend. Helena excoriates Demetrius for treating her so badly. Day vividly portrays Helena’s anger and heartbreak in a rhythmic and growling setting. The piano is played by two musicians, one improvising a rock/blues inspired accompaniment at the piano, the other strumming and hitting the lower strings inside the instrument. On top of this base layer of sound, Day layers the voices in staggered entrances, creating a powerful and menacing atmosphere. Day says that Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” was a key inspiration for this work.
The second half of our concert begins with three African-American spirituals addressing chaotic occurrences past, present, and to come. The first is a setting of “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho.” It tells the story from the Hebrew Bible of Joshua leading the Israelites into Canaan, and the destruction of the city of Jericho. The arrangement is by Marylou India Jackson. Jackson was a pianist, singer, teacher, and arranger who joined the faculty of the Bennet College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1930. She also arranged many spirituals for her women’s choir, as the only arrangements in existence were for men’s or mixed choruses. Our arrangement is one of a collection Jackson published in 1935.
The second spiritual is “Scandalize My Name,” a light-hearted spiritual about gossip in a religious community. The soloists one-up one another through the song, discussing the slander they have had to endure. This arrangement is by Damon H. Dandridge, currently Director of Choral Activities at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. His popular arrangements have been performed all over the world. Other beloved performances of this spiritual include one by Paul Robeson as well as a wonderful duet by Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman that is absolutely worth finding and watching!
The last spiritual ,“In dat great getting’ up mornin’,” describes the events of Judgement Day. The singer clearly looks forward to this time. Both this song and “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” describe the destruction of an existing imperfect society to make way for one that will be better and more just, not a hard point of view to understand from someone who was held in slavery. The arranger is Byron J. Smith, a professor at Los Angeles Harbor College in California, where he is also a studio musician, arranger, and producer who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand.
After a little more vacuuming to clear the stage, we come to the centerpiece of our program, “Why I Pity the Woman Who Never Spills.” This fabulous paean to spills, spurts, and stains of all kinds is by Joan Wolf Prefontaine, a Minnesota writer with degrees in both poetry and theology. The Minnesota composer Elizabeth Alexander set this poem to music for the Cornell University Chorus’s “No Whining, No Flowers” Women’s Choir Commissioning Project. Alexander’s popular choral works are loved and performed across the country. She is known for her sense of humor, her fondness for incorporating blues, pop, or multicultural elements into her music, and for her fantastic choices of texts. About this piece, Alexander says the following:
I'm not sure there's a woman anywhere who hasn't experienced pressure to act, look, sound, and perform flawlessly, which is why Joan Wolf Prefontaine's poem is funny and tragic and triumphant all at the same time. It is only right that women should sing this song together, because we are both a reason for this pressure and a remedy for it. Two experiences I had while writing this song underscored this truth for me. One evening, I was chastised by a hostess for dripping a single drop of red wine onto her kitchen tablecloth — while two weeks earlier my friend Victoria had remarked that she particularly loved the stain on her car's ceiling, because she was almost certain that it was hot chocolate!
The last piece is a favorite of the chorus. “The Stove” is from a set of pieces called “The Muse, The Stove, and the Willow Plate.” The text is by Ann Kilkelly. In addition to being a poet, Kilkelly is also an activist jazz-tap dancer and a professor at Virginia Tech. Composer Zae Munn is a professor at Saint Mary’s College, and one of her most recent works is a haiku opera. In this short, quirky, and humorous piece, Munn uses short, repeated melodic fragments to tell the story of a mother who runs out of patience one day, takes out a sledgehammer, and pounds the kitchen stove into bits. This piece clearly takes delight in the subversive act of destruction and the creation of a little bit (or a lot!) of chaos.
We hope you enjoyed this voyage through a variety of messes, and that you are inspired to have the courage to clean up the serious ones, the serenity to accept the inevitable ones, the gleeful mischief to create the fun ones, and the wisdom to know the difference!