Sunday, January 31, 2021

All is bright

In choosing music for this morning's services - livestreamed affairs in which only one choir soloist and a clergy member or two do all the singing - I had kind of half-heartedly chosen one of our hymnal's "deep cuts" as a solo to be sung by the soprano on hand. The Hymnal 1982 has now been the official hymnal of the Episcopal church for almost forty years, but it has some unexpected little corners which still communicate an optimistic openness to new things, even if some of the new things might seem a little dated now.

I always feel a slightly and wonderfully subversive energy when I happen on these pages, and would love to go back and look in on the room where these choices were made. There are some really lovely tunes by David Hurd and Calvin Hampton that I've loved for years now, but I've always looked a little sideways at the handful of selections from William Albright, a composer with a sizeable reputation and career - though I admittedly know him more by name than his music. (Here's a lovely reflection which includes some suggested listening.)

Like Hampton, another virtuoso organist, Albright died far too soon and his legacy seems to be strongest in the organ repertoire, but it's clear from the bits I've read online in the past twenty-four hours that he was brilliant, wildly creative, and an inspired teacher. He recorded all the Joplin rags while helping to inspire a ragtime revival, wrote many of his own rags (including for organ), studied with Messiaen, and wrote in all sorts of styles with a flair for color and merging the unexpected. 

I'll admit I'm still a little frightened by this frenetic Albright hymn, although rehearsing it once with my choir brought up a great moment when a soprano asked if I could play one part again "without the background noise" - by which she meant, the accompaniment. I suggested later that from now on in recital programs, rather than be listed as accompanist or pianist, I'll just be listed as "Michael Monroe, background noise." 

But Albright's noise can be a bit distracting - in the best way - and that brings us to this morning's hymn. In this case, the tune name is simply ALBRIGHT and it's offered as an alternate option for the hymn Father, we thank thee who hast planted thy holy name within our hearts. The tune itself is fairly simply,  meant to be sung in unison with some bluesy touches along the way. I've had my choir sing it before with me just playing the organ part which mostly features the same rocking chords over a D pedal with lots of pianissimo dissonance mixed in. 

That was my plan for today, but yesterday I looked more closely at the instructions for optional ostinato instruments. This had seemed impractical even when I had a full choir in the house, but having already recorded the accompaniment to give our soloist something to practice with, I couldn't help but wonder what it would sound like to add these extra sounds. I won't go into all the details now, but basically Albright suggests a variety of bell-like instruments (celesta, vibraphones, chimes, electric piano, harp etc.) as possibilities. All the instruments play the same series of notes in an additive/subtractive fashion, but each player chooses a different tempo and sticks to it. The idea is to create a "celestial" effect.

So, I made some seven quick virtual recordings set to various tempi, layered them over the melody and organ part, did some basic adjustments for balance, stereo separation, and reverb, and....well, I was amazed at how beautiful and magical the result was, synthesized limitations aside. I've listened to it countless times already. And, though I'm generally quite hesitant about using pre-recorded material, I even decided to float these ostinati into the sanctuary this morning while the soprano sang and I played the organ part. This is a special hymn and deserves to be heard and sung more often.

Not having found a recording online, I'm posting this to YouTube today, though I might try to make a more sophisticated mix at some point. I'm at that point in the process where if I keep tweaking, I'd be opening up very time-consuming layers of deeper decisions; but the truth is that this music is supposed to find its own way to some degree. Like Terry Riley's In C, a prescription that seems random and lazy turns out to be beautifully conceived, and part of the beauty is in letting new things emerge in the moment. See what you hear. And if you'll excuse the pun, I will add that this evocative, otherworldly music in the brightest of keys is all bright indeed.

See follow-up post with virtual Albright wind chimes and a 30-minute version of this hymn tune.

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