Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Blog #2, Bill of Rights - Performance Options

Many people all over the United States have downloaded my setting of the First Amendment. I am delighted with the widespread interest in this composition. There were downloads first from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont: i.e. the readership of the Hartford Courant and the New England network of Sacred Harp singers. But word has spread about this project, and there have been downloads from California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, and even the US Virgin Islands. That’s twenty of the “fifty nifty United States” plus one of our territories. Downloads in 40% of the states and the web site has only been up for a month! Help spread the word about this site and the FREE SHEET MUSIC on it—let’s aim for at least one download in the other thirty states before Thanksgiving.

Some of you have been asking about performance options for this piece, so I am writing about that in this, my second blog. First of all, it’s a piece in the Sacred Harp tradition and I suggest that it be performed that way (if you are unacquainted with this style of music check out However, if you would like to sing it in a more refined manner, like mainstream American choral singing, or in another style altogether (gospel for example) that is fine too. Singing the Bill of Rights is more important than stylistic nicety—i.e., in the endless controversy “which is more important, the words or the music?” in this case it’s the words.

Second, this First Amendment setting is written in imitation of the music of the United States at approximately the time of the Bill of Rights itself, so certain conventions apply. Specifically, directors should remember that the melody is in the tenor—bring that part out, loud and clear. Also, it is in the style of this music to double the soprano and tenor parts at the octave, so feel free to do that if it’s appropriate to your ensemble and if you like the sound. (This is also a good way to achieve the proper balance if you don’t have enough tenors.) And in the late eighteenth century voice parts in such compositions were routinely doubled by instruments, if instruments were available. (Sacred Harp singers no longer do this—the music, as heard today is 99.44% a cappella.) I suggest the following doublings, all of them completely stylistic:

  • Soprano: doubled at the same pitch by a flute
  • Alto: doubled an octave higher by a clarinet (believe it or not, an authentic practice of the time)
  • Tenor: doubled an octave higher by an oboeBass: doubled at pitch or an octave lower by bassoon, cello or contrabassTenor and
  • Bass: played at pitch (or the tenor an octave higher) on the organAnd ANY combination of the above.

Not quite as stylistic as these suggestions, but effective musically, would be doubling the parts with a string quartet. I’m not sure brass instruments would work as well, but if the players are available go ahead and experiment. I don’t think the piano sounds good with this kind of music, but organ sounds wonderful (harpsichord too).

Third, many of you have written asking about the suitability of this composition for different choral situations. This warrants more extensive discussion. When I wrote the First Amendment my “sonic image” was a moderately large chorus, SATB with balanced parts. I attempted to “write easy” so that amateur choruses could sing the piece without an enormous effort, though clearly some rehearsal would be required. In all this I feel I was successful. The First Amendment is a piece of cake for professional singers, a bit more work for a good community chorus, and well within the capabilities of a fine high school choir (willing to do some woodsheding, of course). As the set of motets progressed I became a bit more adventuresome—there are some hard spots, but nothing which is substantially more difficult than I have described, just a bit more work to make it happen.

That leaves a lot of choral situations which are common, for which the First Amendment is not specifically designed—treble choirs, church choirs without any tenors, male choruses, etc. But my goal is to have the whole country, the whole world singing the Bill of Rights! So all of these choral situations need to be accommodated. Consider some of the possibilities, case by case.

Treble choirs: It’s hard to imagine this work sung by young children. However, preteen treble voices can do it with some work, and singers high school age and above certainly can perform it. Unison treble singers should sing the tenor line, up an octave. Instruments can play the other parts or not, depending on availability—if there are none, leave out the rests in the fuguing sections. Two-part treble choirs can sing the tenor an octave higher (you always need the melody) and the soprano. Three-part choirs add the alto, four-part choirs add the bass.

Church choirs without any tenors should have women’s voices sing that part an octave higher. The organ doubling the tenor and bass parts (or more, if your organist can manage it) sounds fine. Other instruments doubling the appropriate parts (see above) will also be a fine effect.

Certain choirs have no basses, i.e. they are SAT ensembles. I have encountered these forces in a number of situations—choirs of teenage boys, black gospel choruses, and certain Latin American ensembles. In these cases I strongly urge the use of at least one bass instrument, but even if that is not possible sing the upper parts without it! Remember, it is better to sing the Bill of Rights than not to sing it.

Male choruses should put the highest available voices on the alto part (baritones singing in falsetto are great for this purpose) and sing the soprano down an octave. It can be a good idea, depending on the size of the chorus and the number of mature male voices, to transpose the music down a step or even a minor third.

There are probably more situations to be considered—if your kind of choir is not covered in these comments feel free to experiment. I know from personal experience (years of work in church music, and especially adapting the choral music in my piece CONVERGENCE to a multiplicity of circumstances) that all of these suggestions work and can be very effective. Contact me directly if you have questions or comments.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Blog #1: First Singing of Bill of Rights

On this beautiful Bastille Day in Connecticut I would like to take stock of the Bill of Rights composition project. Last Sunday—July 10—a group of some fifty singers joined me at South Church to sing through "The Bill of Rights" for the first time in public. (Six of us met earlier at my house for a bit of a rehearsal, and several people had the music in advance to look it over.) There were another fifty to sixty people who just came to listen—most of them I did not know. Among the singers were Martha Smith, Toby Twining, Paul Anderson and of course Phyllis Bruce, all members of the late great American Music/Theatre Group (AM/TG) which some of you who read this will remember. Many members of the Connecticut Opera Chorus showed up (one of the hats I wear is chorus master for Conn Op), and most of our regular once-a-month Sacred Harp singers as well. The rest of the singers and most of the listeners read about the event in the paper or on the web.

As promised, a video cameraman and a sound engineer from Brave New Films, sent by the ACLU, were on hand to videotape the proceedings and interview me and some of the singers. I will keep you posted on the broadcast of some of this material by the ACLU, which is supposed to take place in September 2005. I also arranged for an audio recording of the singing—excerpts will be available soon on this website for listening.

We rehearsed from 2:30 p.m. to 3:00. My strategy was to go through what I thought were the hardest parts, leaving most of the easier stuff for real sight reading. From the earlier six-person rehearsal it had been determined emphatically that the setting of the Tenth Amendment is the hardest motet of the bunch. This amendment is the "states rights" amendment (see the text elsewhere on this site). I decided that an appropriate musical image for delegating whatever to the individual states "or to the people" would be to delegate a specific musical idea to each section of the chorus. So there are four fugue subjects, and four expositions—the first begins with the tenor subject, the second with the bass, the third with the soprano and the last one with the alto. The fugal treatment is not like Bach or Beethoven (my favorite fugue composers) but rather like the fuguing sections of fuguing tunes. As I write in the score: “If William Billings had written a quadruple fugue it might sound something like this."

After we had gone over the parts and practiced the four expositions we worked through the setting of "cruel and unusual punishment" (completely diatonic but relentlessly dissonant) and a few other tricky spots. Almost exactly at 3:00 p.m. we began with the First Amendment and sang straight through. There was one and only one breakdown. We repeated that place, got through it, and plowed ahead. The end of the reading was greeted with prolonged, enthusiastic applause. Many of the singers indicated a desire to sing the piece again, and many have volunteered for a public performance. Watch this web site for information about such events in the future.

[Sidebar Comment: There are almost 100 downloads of the First Amendment score to date! At least four choral groups in four different states want to do the whole piece.]

After a much-needed break for water, lozenges and general vocal rest, we resumed singing with "Liberty" from The Sacred Harp—a great little piece by Connecticut’s own Stephen Jenks (originally from New Canaan). The text, written just after the American Revolution, seemed especially relevant that afternoon:

No more beneath th’oppresive hand
Of tyranny we groan.
Behold the smiling happy land
That freedom calls her own.

From 4:00 to 5:00 we did some of the best versions ever heard in Central Connecticut of various Sacred Harp favorites, including most of the patriotic pieces (it was the singing closest to the Fourth of July, remember). If any of you would like to join us—our REGULAR SINGINGS from The Sacred Harp and other shaped note collections, old and new, take place on the SECOND SUNDAY of the month from 2:30 to 5:00, usually in the Wesleyan Chapel. Send me an Email to for details and updates.