#68: Wednesday, March 17, 2021
by Catherine Dalton
SSAA double choir, a cappella
This is one of those pieces that I picked up at a conference 5 or 6 years ago, and have been wanting to do since. But I was always a little tentative about the combination of rhythm complexity and double choir together. Enter the pandemic. With shorter group rehearsals to allow for air change, and restrictions on practice room usage to one student only, my singers are doing more work on their own, outside of class, and away from each other. For my advanced group, one-on-a-part work makes a lot of sense this term.
I was initially hesitant to program this with only 9 students, but I played the piece for my singers and they were instantly hooked. To a one, they jumped at the chance for individual accountability and personal responsibility. And they loved the idea of something rhythmically challenging. (This semester’s advanced group is a unicorn – and I love them!)
It stretches me too, as a teacher. I’ve been solid at teaching them rhythmic music literacy in both simple and compound meter. But, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t pushed them to compound subdivision (and subdivision syncopation, and subdivision with dots), yet. Well, “yet” is here now. 🙂 We started the semester with compound meter boot camp – flashcards, worksheets, echoing, dictation, composition cards, the whole bit. I told them we couldn’t open the music until we could perform all of the rhythmic components separately. And wow have they stepped up.
We had a rehearsal earlier this week where we ran down our worksheet of all the different subdivision permutations, and they nailed it. Then I promptly handed out the music, assigned one-per-part, and we started reading. Lots of prep work to get us to the point of “open and read,” but so worth it. We are still taking baby steps with Dorian mode, but we’re getting there!
But, enough about my teaching approach. Let’s talk about the song! I’ve long been a fan of Catherine’s work, and this piece is no exception. Its energetic and tuneful, and feels like its constantly coursing with life. There’s a Celtic style folded into the writing – both rhythmic and tonal.
The poetry, also written by Catherine, focuses on the life cycle of the Sun. There are section headings in the work for “Night is ending,” “The Sun Appears on the Horizon,” “The Height of the Day,” “Color Floods the Horizon,” and “The Sun Disappears.” Each section of music speaks (sings?) to that particular point in the day. You can feel, and hear, all the moments: shafts of light through clouds, blazing midday, the briefest of pink light on the horizon. But, do not be fooled. This piece is not just about the Sun. It’s about energy, and life, and illumination – including the light and strength we find within ourselves.
The topic is all the more poignant because this past week there have been particularly beautiful sunrises over the Blue Ridge mountains. Breathtakingly glorious. I anticipate asking my students, in a few weeks, to take some time to snap some photos of the sun at various points in the day, and then share. Then we can arrange the photos in the order we best think goes with the song. Who knows – maybe that will be the visual backdrop for a recording we can share at the end of term?
Mode. The piece is primarily in D Dorian, with the occasional Bb tossed in (making it standard D natural minor). La minor has been a great option – la ti do re mi fi so la. Only one affected note. The choir was familiar with la-minor already, so the jump to Dorian has been fairly smooth. On the flipside, if you want to teach the pitches by rote, there is motivic repetition in terms of pitch patterns. So it sticks in the ear. (And there are part tracks available for purchase by third-party retailers, if you google.)
The double choir part. Truth be told, it’s not as scary as “SSAA/SSAA” might seem! There are a number of places in the piece that are traditional SA, or SSA, or SSAA, or even a few unison phrases. And in the double choir section, it is rare for a voice to be truly alone. Choir 1 S1/S2 might be similar. Or all sopranos, from both choirs, might be on the same rhythms, but different harmonic points of the chord.
This is an excellent lesson in analysis. Look up and down, who is your part paired with? Who sings the same pitches as you? The same rhythms? How long does that partnership last? When does it change? We did a little of that at our first handout of the music, just scanning up and down the staff, and I heard some “ohhh” moments. When they realize it isn’t as scary as 8-part looks. Think of it like a big group-dance number in a musical, or a courtly dance scene from Tudor England. Partners are changing constantly, but there’s a design and a purpose and an order to it. Plus, many of the motives in the big double choir section are phrases that have been heard before in the piece, so it’s not all new material.
The piece itself also has some intermittent vocal percussion – some rhythmic consonants and variations of vowels. From the programs notes that Catherine included in the front cover, these are perceptions of the ‘sounds the sun makes.’ Yet another aspect that my students are really enjoying.
So, if you have a small ensemble and are looking for a one-on-a-part piece, this is a great choice. Alternately, if you have an ensemble of any size and are looking for divisi with rhythmic complexity, or a chance to work on compound subdivision or Dorian mode, this selection is excellent for that as well. The energy is undeniable!
|Date of Composition:||2014|
|Text Author:||Catherine Dalton|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Sun, light, illumination, personal drive, inner strength|
|Voicing Details:||SSAA double choir (SSAA/SSAA); Not all of the song is double choir – some is unison, SA, SSA, and SSAA.|
|Ranges:||S1: (Choir 1) C4-A5; (Choir 2) C4-F5|
|Publisher:||Hickory Street Publishing (www.CatherineDalton.net)|
Composer’s website, including perusal score, and audio by Vox Femina Los Angeles (Iris Levine, artistic director):
Atlanta Women’s Chorus Virtual Choir (Melissa Arasi, artistic director)
Until next month!
p.s. As an aside, I’m currently pairing this song with “Cool Moon” (SSA by Richard Williamson). Click here for the blog post. So that’s a Sun-themed rhythmically-complex, 8-part divisi, modal piece to focus on individual work, and a Moon-themed rhythmically-simple, three-part, diatonic, easy-solfege piece to work on balance, blend, phrasing, and tone. So far so good!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is Director of Choral Activities and associate professor of music at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.