This weekend, Choral Chameleon will give the world premiere of Eri Yamamoto's full-length choral piece, Goshu Ondo Suite, for choir and jazz piano trio. I'm glad to say that this project has been recognized in publications including The New Yorker and The New York City Jazz Record.
To put it bluntly, the work of this wonderful composer and pianist has been a revelation in my musical life. Working with her and working on Goshu Ondo Suite this fall has been a great privilege because it has afforded Choral Chameleon many opportunities. Included among them is the chance for the choir to rehearse in a way we usually don't, to encounter more unfamiliar harmonic language, and to learn in a tactile way about another culture which differs from the norm in North America. Most of all, though, it is a chance to celebrate the great melting pot that is New York City, acknowledging a profound truth about the nature of life in the form of this concert and this joining of people.
Since the beginnings of this beautiful city, people from all corners of the earth have migrated from near and far to look for ways to improve their lives and grow their prosperities. Like so many before me, I came here almost 14 years ago because I felt so compelled to do so that I could no longer ignore it in my life. The pull of this place calls the most ambitious, the most energetic, and the most visionary people to put themselves to the test at their very core. It bids us learn things about ourselves, and about the world around us, that we are not expecting to learn.
In this way, I see a great deal of my own journey in Eri, except to a greater degree in her. She took considerably more risk than I had to take coming here, as I was already an American citizen and spoke English fluently. Here, we have a native Japanese woman who made the difficult choice to leave her family, her home, and the strong memories of a formative childhood which so clearly influenced her. Despite this separation from the very fabric of her being, she still bravely leaped, because she, too, felt the formidable pull. Goshu Ondo Suite is one thing that was born as a result. These two facets of herself, her story from Japan and her new story as a jazz musician in New York City, somehow managed to fuse themselves into the form of a choral piece. In a way, it’s like a personal soliloquy which celebrates both of these prominent patterns in the fabric of her life.
How deeply profound it is to witness this, and how few words there are that could describe the honor I feel having been asked by her to bring it to life. I know that our singers feel the same sense of honor and responsibility in having been invited to premiere this excellent work, ironically by a composer who has never written a choral piece before. The pull of human intuition and the charge she must've felt to create this extensive work certainly outweighed any technical challenges she might have faced in getting it out of her consciousness and onto paper.
Thank you to Chorus America for this incredible honor.
Louis Botto and Chanticleer were household names for me as a young boy growing up in San Francisco. Therefore, to be honored today with this award given in his memory is a particularly poignant and special moment for me. Some of the roots of my choral music tree are audio memories of sitting in Mission Dolores Basilica or St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco and listening to the pristine, seamless sound with deep astonishment at the power and scope of what human voices could do. I understood then and I understand more than ever now that this is not only a musical art. It is, in fact, a microcosm of the ideal society - where people cast aside their differences and live in harmony, and where, in fact, their many differences compliment each other in ways about which the modern world has completely forgotten.
If there is to be a life for this important work into the next century and beyond, we have empower the composers and the singers to find and lead us down pathways of harmony between the past and the present, tradition and innovation, the sacred and the secular, the popular and the obscure, the men and the women, the gay, straight, bi, trans, and binary, the young and old, the black and white, the republican and democrat, the conservative and liberal, the east and west, north and south. Furthermore, we must meet people where they are and speak to them in their own familiar languages - a means of lowering the defensive barriers that conspire to separate us needlessly.
Over the last ten years, I have watched the singers of Choral Chameleon grow and change, open and expand, transform their lives, give every bit of themselves to the point of exhaustion, and take each other by the hand and jump - and jump - and jump - and jump again - all to accomplish this mission and inspire people to be their best selves so that they can go out and serve the world with joyful curiosity.
They are my heroes. All of them.
What an incredible feeling it is to be in the company of some of the greatest choral music minds of our time - particularly Craig Johnson Patrick Quigley, Donald Nally, Grant Gershon, Jonathan Miller, the inimitable Gregg Smith, Dale Warland, Jon Washburn, and Dennis Keene - all of whom I have deeply admired, studied, and emulated with fervor.
I am moved to the point of tears to know that Nicole Belmont, Matthew Oltman, David Conte, and Kristina Boerger thought enough of me to offer their generous written words in putting me forward for this honor. Each of them, in their own ways, is a pivotal force in music and certainly in my life.
Thank you, one and all, for your support - but most of all, for your willingness to love and love and love some more, no matter what comes.
It's 5:30am and I am tossing and turning in my bed because, in my dreams last night, I relived an experience I had fairly recently. I won't reveal any names or where I had this experience, so don't ask me.
Someone tried to "mansplain" (and I mean that word in the worst possible sense) to me what the Scientific Method is. This person is a scientist - and a celebrated one at that. We were having a discussion about ways that people learn things. I explained that a Music Theory class, in its very essence, is first and foremost a science. This person vehemently disagreed with me - steering me to how music and the arts function more on the right side of the brain rather than the left and citing the definition of the Scientific Method as though I "clearly didn't understand what it was." They said something along these lines:
"Look, Vince, what you do and what we do are not the same at all. We spend our time trying to prove and disprove hypotheses by doing experiments and testing them. That is the Scientific Method. That is not what you do."
I replied: "What is it you think we do, then?"
"Well, I don't know beyond what I hear and I certainly think you put beauty into the world, but you don't use the Scientific Method to do that."
I recalled how, when my beloved teacher and Friend, Conrad Susa attended school at (then) Carnegie Tech and, later, at Juilliard, the degrees which were awarded to them were "Bachelor of Science" and "Master of Science." Nowadays, they are, of course, BMus and MMus - another mistake in the long list of regression which has continuously grown in music schools - even conservatories - over the last 50+ years.
I replied to this person:
"For an example: when one studies species counterpoint either modally or tonally, one is given a line called a "Cantus Firmus" and asked to compose a second and/or third voice against this given line. There are a plethora of rules - some of them rather stringent guidelines - to which one must adhere in order for the resultant line to be organic and serviceable and for the juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance to be balanced in a traditional sense. There are entire treatises written about this. There are countless papers and books written about both this and practices that spun off of this - such as the Schenkerian theory. The vast landscape of not only musical composition but also musical interpretation and pedagogy is largely perched on this basic premise. The value of whether or not something works in the environment in which you set it is NOT entirely a function of emotion and feelings and impulse. If musicians throughout history acted only (or primarily) on feelings and impulse, we would certainly not have the lion's share of the masterworks to which we constantly look today for examples. One should note that these are the very same works which have inspired so many composers who followed to push themselves harder, to continue searching for new thought, and to offer their listeners something compelling to think about."
The person was looking at me with an obvious mixture of perplexity and irritation because I pointed out to them that it was arrogant to assume that:
This is an urgent societal problem.
As musicians, we have done such a phenomenal job at affecting and manipulating the human brain that our entire species has evolved in its thinking and processing of audio material to the point of hypnosis. In other words, people are, indeed, so affected by the music they've experienced that they have become blind and deaf to how it got into their ears in the first place. They treat us (musicians) almost exclusively as entertainers and as emotionally charged, volatile people - as though we, ourselves, are the absentminded consumers.
I have even encountered young, emerging composers who would rather think of themselves as "Architects of Sound" (this is actually something a graduate student once said to me) than adopt any kind of established technique for assembling their ideas in a cohesive manner on the page. This is, of course, regardless of the kind of musical language in which they reside. In other words, it doesn't matter if you are a tonalist, atonalist, polytonalist, pandiatonicist, or whatever. We need all of those languages in music. It does matter, however, that you write your musical words down with technique, syntax, cohesiveness, and some kind of structure, be it loose or meticulously scaffolded. This is a huge part of what musicians formally study when in school - or, at least, it WAS.
As I was typing that just now, I was kicking myself a little bit because it is, in fact, this level of technique and structure that leads to such fluid consumption of music so as to create consumers like said scientist above.
Here are my assertions:
To my fellow musicians:
We must do all we can to stop perpetuating this absentminded notion in society. How?
And most of all...