#33: Friday, November 2, 2018
“And Miriam Sang (Shiru L’Adonai)”
by Zebulon M. Highben
I was introduced to Zebulon M. Highben’s “And Miriam Sang” at the 2013 Women’s Chorus Reading Session at the ACDA National Conference in Dallas. You know the drill during rep sessions – you often make quick “yes/no/maybe” decisions based on what you see and hear. Then you furiously scribble notes in the margins of the booklet or on the front covers of pieces to remember for later. My notes for this selection include: “Yes!” “Great Energy” “Layered Ostinato” “(limited) Hebrew” “Two contrasting styles” “Rhythms” “Start of Year” and “Good Ranges.”
Fast forward to 2016 and I was looking for one more selection for my small upper-level ensemble. It was the first concert of the year and there were 15 singers in the group that semester – some returning, some new. I knew I needed to keep the repertoire at a level of divisi and difficulty that was achievable, especially at the start of the year when I didn’t know all the students’ skills yet. Lots of potential in the singers that year, but I knew I couldn’t split them up into too many parts too soon.
Enter Highben’s “And Miriam Sang.” I saw it in my ever-present stack of “music I like and want to program someday,” and decided it was the perfect time. I played bits of the recording at our first class, and my singers were hooked. Similar to my notes from the ACDA reading session, they liked the energy, the drive, the contrasting styles, and the chance to sing in Hebrew.
For an ensemble who is comfortable in 2-part, but wants to branch out to 3-part, this can be a great option as your “challenge piece.” The layered-ostinato style is exceptionally supportive of developing part independence. Conversely, if your group is already solidly reading 3- or 4-part, this can be a “quick learn” – one that allows you to jump to musicality right from the start.
Because of the motivic nature of the composition, this is an excellent opportunity to utilize singer-led sectionals to teach the piece. There are plenty of challenges to singer-led sectionals, depending on the size, skill level, age, educational/community setting, and physical rehearsal space of your ensemble. But, since the motive is only four measures long, this piece is an excellent way to support sectional and section leadership. The motivic nature also helps with text learning too, as each voice part only has a few brief phrases to learn in Hebrew.
The composer’s website shares the following information about the text and background of the piece:
In Exodus 15, Miriam and the women of Israel sing and dance following Israel’s deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea; this piece is inspired by what such a celebration might have sounded like. Melodies are original, but incorporate the augmented second interval (lowered second, raised third scale degrees) and melodic formulas common to Hasidic and some Middle-Eastern music.http://www.zebulonhighben.com/miriam/
A note about the voicing:
It is labeled SSAA, but reads more like SSA or SSA w/ Alto divisi. In the first half of the piece, that are three ideas present: S1, S2, and unison Alto. In the second half, there are still three (different) musical ideas present, but the altos divide into homophonic harmony. So, in voicing your ensemble, this presents a conundrum. You could go SSAA as marked the whole way through, which might end up alto-heavy at the top, but somewhat even later on. Or, you could approach it as SSA, which would be balanced in the beginning, but might come out with a weaker alto line later. Or, you could do SSA at the beginning and then re-voice to SSAA at the section break. Your choice will depend on the number and confidence of your singers, and the end-goal sound-pyramid you are wanting to create.
The piece opens with percussion setting the tone for the steady, chant-like style. Soprano 2s enter first, with a four-measure phrase that includes articulations, dynamics, and a slide, and which spans a sixth in range. This phrase is sung a total of seven times in a row, with the dynamics modifying slightly in terraces throughout. After two full repetitions of S2, the Alto line enters with their own four-measure pattern, sung five times total. Once the Altos have established their motive, the Soprano 1s enter on their four-measure pattern, sung a total of 3 times.
The bands of tonal sonority that are created as the layers interweave and the dynamics grow are fantastic. Drum 1 and Drum 2 enter with Alto and Soprano1 respectively, so this continues to add to the building energy.
At the section break, the style shifts from 4/4, Chant-like, mm=60 to 2/4, Exuberantly, mm=100. All the percussion begin together in the new tempo, driving the feeling with accents and syncopation. (Just like the voice lines, the percussion parts are also comprised primarily of ostinato motives, so they could definitely be played by members of the ensemble.)
Here, the four-measure layers build from the bottom, with divisi Alto in homophonic harmony, then Sop2, then Sop1. Each addition adds more excitement and dynamics.
For the final page of the work, all voice parts come together in homophonic fashion for the first time: same rhythms, same text, different pitches. It seems a small change, but the effect is strong and striking. The song then closes with a slightly slower homophonic phrase, emphatically restating a key phrase of text.
From start to finish, my singers thoroughly enjoyed working on this piece. They could feel successful early and often, individually and as an ensemble. And they were proud of being able to learn this piece primarily in student-led sectionals. It gave them a sense of leadership, responsibility, and camaraderie that continued the entire term.
|Title:||And Miriam Sang|
|Composer:|| Zebulon M. Highben |
|Date of Composition:||2011|
|Text Source:||Exodus 15:21|
| Subject(s), |
|Celebration, Women’s History, Judaism|
|Voicing Details:||Labeled SSAA, but reads like SSA with Alto divisi.|
|Ranges:|| S1: E4-G#5 |
|Accompaniment:||Percussion (Tambourine, Drum I, Drum II)|
|Tempo:||“Chant-like” MM=60, then “Exuberantly” MM=100|
|Dedication:||Dr. Sandra Snow and the Michigan State University Women’s Chamber Ensemble|
|Series:|| CME In High Voice |
(Doreen Rao’s Choral Music Experience)
|Publisher:||Boosey & Hawkes|
| Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing: |
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.