Del Gran Sole: Interview with composer Ted Allen

Jun 8, 2016

Composers Ted Allen and Jason Carl Rosenberg discuss the creative process for Allen’s Del Gran Sole. The work will be premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists in their concert series, 21st-Century Baroque, which pairs the chamber choir with the Galax Quartet, a string quartet using Baroque instruments.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: Your piece, Del Gran Sole, sets text by the Italian Renaissance poet Vittoria Colonna. What drew you to this text?

Ted Allen: As I do with most of my choral pieces, I started out at the library. I wanted to work with a Renaissance poet so that the text would match the early music theme of the program. I narrowed my search to women poets so that I might find a voice that was not well known from the standard canon. I knew I wanted to do a fun, lively, major key thing and Colonna’s recurring use of light as metaphor for the Holy Spirit was perfect for that concept.

This is similar to the way I chose the text for the SFCA collaboration with the Whole Noyse. Because that was also an early music group, I chose a poem by the Oakland poet Lucha Corpi about Marina, a figure in Mexican history whose life was roughly contemporaneous with the historical instruments used in the piece.

JCR: How did Colonna’s repeated use of the “light” metaphor manifest in your musical setting?

TA: Rather than choosing one of Colonna’s sonnets, I extracted fourteen lines from various sonnets that mentioned light, flames, torches and so on, to create sort of a meta-sonnet. Del Gran Sole is bright and bouncy, though it turns a bit darker when the text refers to clouds. Of course, the sun features heavily in the piece. I set the word “sole” consistently on a rising minor third.

JCR: The piece features radically different roles for the strings and voices. Can you describe their relationship and your intentions?

TA: The string quartet is an accompaniment, establishing the character, harmonic content and rhythm of each section. Other than one short solo section for the strings that features some early 17th century style violin passage work, the main job of the strings is to create a sequence of harmonic and rhythmic tableau that the choir parts float over independently.

JCR: I’d like to end by asking about the harmony in Del Gran Sole. There seems to be a focus on perfect intervals (especially perfect fourths) or superimposition of perfect intervals. Can you briefly explain your treatment of harmony in this piece?

TA: Perfect intervals have been a stylist staple for me for decades. The perfect intervals come out of folk and popular music, drones, guitar power chords, funk horn arrangements, and so on. In Del Gran Sole in particular, the perfect intervals come out of the string quartet. I use perfect intervals in the string writing to exploit the open strings and get that resonance. That vocabulary carries over into the choir parts. Also, fourths are harmonically ambiguous and flexible: you can mix and match them in many ways.