John Kelley and "The Cauld, Cauld Night"

Nov 12, 2015

Composer Jason Carl Rosenberg interviews 2016 Composer-in-Residence John Kelley about his artistic practice and his new work, “The Cauld, Cauld Nicht”. This piece will receive its world premiere in SFCA’s upcoming concert series, Tales from Wales: A British Christmas.

2016 Composer-in-Residence John Kelley

2016 Composer-in-Residence John Kelley

Jason Carl Rosenberg: You have been involved with the choir for many years as both a singer and a composer. How has your familiarity with the choir and its distinct characteristics shaped the compositions you recently wrote for the group?

John Kelley: The group has always been noted for its purity of tone, sensitivity to texts, and ability to create breathtakingly lush choral sound, especially in quiet passages. As a singer in the group, I particularly enjoyed being part of such sensitive performances; as a supporter and audience member thereafter, those strengths continued to be part of what made attending SFCA concerts so enjoyable. As a result, when I sit down now to compose a piece for SFCA, I can imagine what the resulting choral sound will be like. I tend to include complex harmonies, lots of suspensions, and some very quiet passages. I also tend to include passages where the entire choir is singing the same words (and often the same rhythms) at the same time, because SFCA has such a keen ability to match tone and create a balanced, unified choral sound. Magen and the group members also have a sense of humor, and she is admittedly fond of “quirky” programming, so I like to include musical jokes from time to time, when it seems appropriate.

JCR: SFCA has presented more than 10 works of yours and they’ll premiere another one at the Tales from Wales: A British Christmas concert series in December. Can you reflect on the evolution—or if you prefer a softer word, change—in your compositional approach over this time period?

JK: Creating beautiful melodies and harmonies has always been an important component of my compositional style, even during high school and college. My setting of W. B. Yeats’s exquisite “When You Are Old,” which is included on SFCA’s second recording, Music Among Friends, is a prime example—I wrote it for one of the a cappella singing groups with which I sang while an undergraduate a Yale. So my choral writing has always had that foundation. I would say that, as my writing for SFCA has evolved, I’ve developed a better sense of what “works” harmonically and rhythmically.

Magen is able to coach SFCA into making practically any choral music—even the most dissonant and counter-intuitive and rhythmically complex—sound graceful and even elegant. But getting there can take up a lot of rehearsal time, which is of course always limited. So these days I generally try to avoid vocal lines that stray far from singers’ comfort zones, and harmonies that are “odd for oddness’ sake,” rather than being evocative or effective. I think the singing of a piece should be enjoyable for the singers, not terrifying or grueling. Like an audience member, a singer shouldn’t get to the end of a choral piece and think, “Whew, I survived,” but rather, “Wow, that was fun. Let’s do it again.”

I have also tended to compose entirely a cappella pieces for SFCA in recent years, so the pieces can be performed in any venue, and the organization doesn’t have to deal with the increased costs and rehearsal scheduling difficulties involved in preparing and performing accompanied works. That said, I find it a fun challenge to compose for mixed choral/instrumental forces, and I’m excited at the prospect of composing a new work for the June 2016 concerts, in which SFCA will collaborate with the Galax String Quartet.

JCR: Every choral and vocal composer has an idiosyncratic relationship to and interaction with the texts they set. How would you describe your process for setting text in your choral works?

JK: My process almost always involves discovering an interesting text, mulling it about in my mind for several days or weeks, and seeing what sort of melodic ideas “float to the surface.” As a singer, it is very important to me that the rhythm of the sung text feel natural, and so I try to come up with rhythms that complement the text (i.e., stressing the important words and not stressing unimportant words). I sing through each vocal line and tinker with it until it seems to flow smoothly. The result tends to be very lyrical.

On the other hand, sometimes I want to create more rhythmic variety, and I will set portions of the text repetitively, so that the listener is more struck by the percussive sound of the syllables and the rhythms than by the meaning of the words. For example, in the piece for this December, the second half contains passages in which the choir repeats “Hodie Jesus! Hodie Christus! Hodie natus!” in a driving, chanting rhythm under the more fluid folk-like melody.

JCR: The upcoming concert is subtitled A British Christmas. Your new composition relates in some important ways to the British choral tradition, and to Britten and Vaughan Williams in particular. Can you talk briefly about those connections?

JK: One of the main inspirations for my piece was Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin,” which is a piece for a larger choir and a smaller choir. That piece is in a “macaronic” form—the larger choir sings entirely in English, while the smaller choir sings in Latin, and the choirs alternate and dovetail. In my piece the predominant text is a telling of the “No Room at the Inn” story in a Scots dialect, interspersed with short phrases in Latin, loosely based upon and expanding on the familiar “Ave Maria” text. So the English text tells the story of Christ’s birth, and the Latin text is a prayer to Mary.

Vaughan Williams is well-known for taking British folk melodies and expanding them into lush choral works, and I hope that my piece for this concert set fits well within that tradition. According to the singers, the melody comes across as a traditional folksong—that is the effect I was seeking, and I’m delighted to hear that it seems to be working. Vaughan Williams is also credited with preserving and promoting English folk song, and I hope that my setting of Sir Alexander Gray’s poem “Twas a Cauld, Cauld Nicht” will help make future generations of singers and choral music audiences aware of this lovely Scottish text.