I wrote this program note for Choral Chameleon's "Deus Ex Machina" concert, but it reflects something much broader which I consider to be true in choral music making:
I have felt what I am about to write for years. I also understand why what I am about to write has happened in choral music.
Too many musicians who are placed in charge of singers wield fear as a means of eliciting human sound. They treat people as though they are machines. The idea is that if enough fear is conjured and enough ultimatums are given, humans will go into “fight or flight” mode and desperately push themselves to meet demands. On the other hand, many conductors are blissfully unaware of what they do to their singers or they justify the action as being “in service of music.”
My truth is that fear-mongering and intimidation have nothing to do with making music at all.
In the great movie Whiplash, J.K. Simmons’ character has a profound line toward the end. He says: “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'Good job.'” This has been the view of music teachers at the collegiate and professional levels for generations before mine. There is a long-held belief that encouraging music students or telling them at any point that they have achieved a goal will stop them from working just as hard moving forward and will give them a false impression of what the “real world” will be like when it receives their musical offerings in the future. I remember, during my years in music school, thinking many times that there must be a way to cultivate high performance from musicians without cruelty, intimidation, or insult. In a way, I feel like I’ve been looking for it my whole career thus far.
The root cause of this behavior in choral music is generations of symphonic chorus conductors, themselves, being mistreated or at least disregarded by their orchestral cohorts. Over time, this created a sense of desperation in them to ensure that a certain result would always be “guaranteed” and that whatever (usually off-base) requests the orchestra conductor would make could be translated into choral rehearsal language and delivered to the conductor in short order. This desperation made its way into the choral rehearsal room and was passed on to singers. As many of those reputable conductors made their way into schools to teach, they began to “protect” future generations by modeling the behaviors they experienced in the “real world” as a means of preparing their students for careers as such.
Ironically, the organ, which has long been associated with choral music (let’s call it a first cousin), quite literally is a machine. However, when one hearkens to the sensitive playing of a true organist, the instrument begs us to listen for its very soul. Perhaps, in a way, this is why it is so empathetic with singers. I find the dichotomy fascinating and put it at the core of this concert.
In short, human beings are not machines, but the organ is. The empathy between human voices singing and the kaleidoscopic sound of the organ evokes a deep sense of soul in both: each one lifting and celebrating the other. If the soul is the deepest part of us and is somehow connected to God, then we can indeed hear “God from the Machine” and remember something fundamental about life.
May it be so.
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.