Freed From Words

Feb 15, 2013

Mark-Winges-SFCA-Composer-in-Residenceby 2013 Composer-in-Residence Mark Winges.

Composers write choral music for a lot of reasons. Leaving aside the immediate practical benefits (instant fame and fortune, the promise of excellent cookies at post-concert receptions), at the top of my list is that I love the sound of a chorus. “Love” in my case refers to both listening to those sounds and exploring how those sounds are made and how they combine.

I find something quite special in text that is set to music. In the best examples, text and music combine in a way that is far more than the sum of those two parts. Music can be carried along by text (or vice versa), and I’ve had many musical ideas generated by the diverse texts I’ve set: Li Ho (8th century Chinese), the Latin of Hildegard of Bingen, the Mayan Popul Vuh, Rumi, the surreal musings of Hans Arp (early 20th century), contemporary poets Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forché, Mary Oliver, Denise Newman. However, sometimes I want to explore stuff beyond the words.

In the case of Toward the Horizon, the piece premiered in SFCA’s December 2012 set, I wasn’t interested in a description of the horizon, or words about the horizon. Rather, I wanted to capture something of what that journey toward an unattainable goal might be like (the horizon is always before us, we never really get to it). There’s a mystery about that unknown which can’t really be translated into words. For anima gaia, the piece that will be performed by SFCA in March 2013, I wanted to capture something about the living nature of mother earth. Again this seemed to be something beyond words.

Being the Choral Artists’ composer-in-residence has brought me back to the source: choral sound. A sound that can be endlessly expressive, can suggest rather than explain. A sound that invites listeners in as nothing else, because no other music-making ensemble is as fundamentally human as a chorus. In a sense, my choral pieces without text are very much “back to the roots” works. Their raison d’être is an unadorned example of my love-affair with the sound of voices singing.