#70: Wednesday, May 19, 2021
They Can’t Put it Back: A Choral Trilogy of Appalachian Poems about Environmental Degradation
by Mary E. Simmons
SSAA, a cappella
Today, May 19, is Commencement Day at Hollins University for the Class of 2021. In honor of that, I’d like to present a new work by a graduating senior music major – a set we would have sung on our spring concert and at her senior recital, had either of those two events been able to occur as usual.
Mary Simmons has been a long-time choir leader in my advanced ensemble, and has excelled at both theory/composition and classical guitar. She will be continuing her studies at University of Kentucky in the fall, working towards a Masters of Music in Music Composition.
This work is a choral trilogy for treble voices, focusing on the environmental degradation and effects of mining in the Appalachian region. The poetry is from three Appalachian poets, and come from the anthology Coal: A Poetry Anthology, edited by Chris Green (2006).
Having grown up here in southwest Virginia, and continued in the area for college, Mary is passionate about this land and this space and its people. When I first read through her score in May 2020, I was immediately in love with the texts she chose, and her wonderful musical settings. I had only ever heard a midi recording, but I knew these were pieces I definitely wanted to do with the choirs. Sadly, the opportunity to program the work got lost in the ever-changing landscape of Covid-era choral and academic policies.
Fast-foward nearly a year later, to spring 2021. For her senior recital, which was an all-online event, Mary still wasn’t able to have a choir perform her work. So she became her own choir. In the videos below, you’ll see her singing virtual-choir-style in 16 boxes, having recorded herself four times on each of the four voice parts. And you’ll see that she added photography as well, to capture the imagery of both the beauty and the destruction that exist side by side.
The reaction to these works during her youtube recital premiere was extraordinary. I can’t give her the concert that these works deserve, but I can share them with each of you, in the hopes that you will contact her and consider programming this or other of her works in the future.
As a full set, the three selections total about 12 minutes. Each movement is beautifully set for 4-part SSAA a cappella choir.
Introduction: In this initial video segment from her virtual recital, Mary speaks for a moment about the works as a set, and briefly about each movement. All “composer’s comments” below are taken from this intro segment. Perusal score pages are linked below each video. For full scores or performance inquiries, please contact Mary at .
Movement I. Go Tell The Children
Text by Muriel Miller Dressler, from Appalachia, My Land, Morris Harvey College, 1973
Adagio, dolce – 4 minutes
Composer’s comments: “The idea behind this movement is questioning how we as a society could ever be OK with the damage that we have done to the environment, knowing what we have left our children.”
Begins with primarily vertical harmonies in F major, then shifts to an equal-voice round in G. Moves back to F with solo+choir, then closes with homophonic chorus.
Perusal Pages: click here
Movement II. Things have Changed
Text by Sarah Cornett-Hagen, from Coal Camp Child
Lento – 3 minutes
Composer’s comments: “This poem follows the narrative of a person who grew up in the Appalachian region and fell in love with the beauty and the land as a child, but has now moved away, and then come back to see that things don’t really look the way they had before, due to man-made things like coal mining and mountaintop removal.”
Opens with homophonic choral writing, with some contrasting segments of S1/S2 vs A1/A2. Some internal motivic motion within the voices. Fluid yet diatonic tonal structure, moving tonicized keys along with sections of the poetry.
Perusal pages: click here
Movement III. Goliath
Text by Billy Edd Wheeler, from Song of a Woods Colt, Droke House, 1969
Adagio – 4 minutes
Composer’s Comments: “This shows a person who is really fed up and done and ready to protest for the change needed.”
The name of the poem refers to the giant-sized land-eating machinery that is used during mountaintop and forest removal, but the poem also includes a David character – a person who is finding it within themselves to stand up to the machine. The closing line of this poem is the namesake of the full trilogy set title: They Can’t Put It Back.
This movement is more of a challenge in terms of key structure, non-homophonic writing, and meter changes, but the end result is worth the work.
Perusal Pages: click here
I hope you are as moved by these compositions as I was during Mary’s recital. I know I plan to program them with my Hollins ensembles once things return to normal, and will hope to include imagery much as Mary has done here. These are lovely and impactful compositions that can be done singly or as a set, and I encourage you to consider them for your ensembles in the future.
Until next month!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.