Week 21: Friday, August 10, 2018
“Dance Ablaze!” by Janika Vandervelde
Text by Jody Johnson
SSA, percussion, hand claps
A rhythmic, energetic piece, this work by Janika Vandervelde is both a physically and emotionally engaging selection for your women’s/treble choir. Between the mixed meter, the handclaps, and the poetic text, your singers and audience alike will be enthralled from start to finish.
The text for “Dance Ablaze!” comes from two separate poems by Minnesota poet Jody Kristine Johnson: “We Are All a Part of Each Other” from Here I Am (1995) and “Loaves and Fishes” from Homeland (1997). Both texts are about individuality, the power of the universe, and the energy of life. However, each text approaches the topics differently.
The former is more direct, celebrating our unique individual energies and the ecstatic wonder that is created when we combine those energies in community. The latter is more contemplative and introspective, focusing on our internal joy and the enveloping beauty found in sharing that spirit with others.
Vandervelde’s musical setting has two main styles, corresponding to the two poems. After presenting both styles/texts, the opening material returns at the end, creating an overall ABA’ form.
The middle B section of the work, marked Slowly, uses the “Loaves and Fishes” text. It is three-part SSA, with some small internal divisi. There are changing meters, including 2/2, 3/2, 2/4, and 3/4, but the driving force is more melodic than rhythmic. This portion is lyrical and mostly homophonic, with brief exceptions. Dynamics play a strong role in this section, ebbing and flowing with the rise and fall of the text.
The opening and closing A sections of the work are mixed-meter brilliance. Johnson’s “We are all a Part of Each Other” is the main text. This dramatic, driving part is three-part SSA, with varying clapping rhythms, and is mostly unmetered (though with very clear combinations of 2 and 3). It is full of exciting momentum and forward-motion, and has a plethora of opportunities for teaching mixed-meter rhythms.
The first thing any conductor or ensemble will notice is the rhythmic notation. Every measure is comprised of duples and triples, which are notated by the numbers “2” and “3.” For example, a 4/4 measure may be marked as 3+3+2 or 2+2+2+2. The unmetered measures, of which there are many, have other combinations: 2+2+3+2+2, 3+2+2+2, etc. All voices in this section have the same rhythmic patterns, only varying in harmonic function.
In addition to the choral parts, there is a separate staff for the claps. But, these are not your standard “off-beat” claps. They are a combination of quarters and eighths aligning to the mixed meter, which the composer has also labeled as Pattern A, B, or C. The claps are notated by “—” for a quarter-note clap, and “x” for an eighth-note clap. Be prepared to devote one rehearsal segment just to the clapping!
A great music literacy lesson might involve using these meter and clapping patterns for sound-before-sight exercises (i.e. neutral echo, echo-translating into rhythmic syllables, dictation), before giving singers the music. Note: If you are a takadimi aficionado, especially teaching methods by Don Ester or Carol Krueger, this song is a gold mine of music literacy pedagogy opportunities!
An optional (but very helpful!) percussion part is available for 2-3 players on hand drums and other hand percussion, to add emphasis on the claps and rhythmic structure.
There is no key signature to this piece, only accidentals within the individual measures. The B section is more tonal than the A section, but both involve some chromatic notation. The dissonances are crunchy and enjoyable though, and, once learned, are quite fun. Many of the melodic lines and harmonies are motivic in nature. So, once a phrase or pattern is learned, it often reappears (the subtitle of the work is “a pattern piece for singing and clapping”).
Visual layout caveats, to consider before the first rehearsal:
- For the B section, each voice part has their own line, so there is no confusion as to part assignments. In the A section though, all voice parts share one staff, which can lead to occasional questions about which part sings which note.
- Some singers may find the clapping pseudo-notation of — and x to be confusing. Added to the pitches, lyrics, and the 2+3 indicators, it can be somewhat visually chaotic. Transcribing the rhythms to standard eighths/quarters, and then writing them in the score, can eliminate much of this (and, it’s another great literacy exercise!). It will likely take time to acclimate the ensemble to what they are seeing on the page. Despite the non-standard appearance though, the composer’s intent is very clear.
Overall, I have found that this piece feels a little daunting to singers when they first look at the score. Hearing the piece, they love it, but when they start to unpack it in rehearsal, it can be a bit intimidating on the page and in practice. But, it is well worth the effort to get past that first hurdle! If approached with good scaffolding and with motivic patterns in mind, the learning process can be made to feel much more approachable. Once the singers dig into it, it is really rather accessible and singable.
“We are a living dance,” and “until we are ablaze with the living light of love” are phrases from the poems, which Vandervelde merged to form the name of the song. Her musical setting and Johnson’s poetry make an exceptional combination of music and text that live up to the title.
|Date of Composition:||2001|
|Text Source/Author:||Jody Kristine Johnson [“Loaves and Fishes” from Homeland (1997), and “We Are All a Part of Each Other” from Here I Am (1995).]|
|Date of Text:||1995, 1997|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Joy, Community, Individuality, Energy|
|Voicing Details:||SSA with handclaps|
|Accompaniment:||Percussion, 2-3 players|
I, one player: hand drums such as congas or dumbek
II, one or two players: hand percussion such as maracas, guiro, sandpaper blocks, cabasa, clave, etc.
|Tempo:||A section: 132; B section; Slowly|
|Commissioning Ensemble:||Minnesota Music Educators’ Association & Minnesota chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association|
|Perusal Score and Publisher Info:|
Full length recording:
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.
Some source material for this week’s blog post was taken from my doctoral dissertation, “By Women, For Women: Choral Works for Women’s Voices Composed and Texted by Women.” https://tinyurl.com/ydeyuyk8