#72: Wednesday, August 18, 2021
“Where the Light Begins” by Susan LaBarr
Text by Jan Richardson
Everyone’s choir plans are different and in flux right now (#coviddelta). No matter what your fall looks like though, I’m hopeful this selection will be universally helpful. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece, with relatable text (especially now!), fluid vocal lines, supportive piano accompaniment, (pleasantly) repetitive structure, and multiple avenues for music literacy tie-ins. I look forward to putting this on whatever concert I get to program first — whenever and wherever that happens to be.
H/T to Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff, associate professor and conductor of the Sora Singers at Brock University (Ontario, Canada), for introducing me to this piece. Rachel spoke about this selection during a recent “Forward Thinking” zoom meeting, a Covid-era weekly interactive series created by Elektra Women’s Choir and their artistic director Morna Edmundson. Whether your SA ensemble is college, community, or middle/high school, you absolutely must familiarize yourself with Morna’s and Elektra’s work, especially their repertoire resources. For more information, https://elektra.ca/community-engagement/forward-thinking/
The text for this piece is by poet and author Jan Richardson. She is a United Methodist minister, and the full poem was originally an Advent/Christmas blessing, from her book Circle of Grace. Composer Susan LaBarr was commissioned to write this piece of music by the Henry Middle School Varsity Treble choir, for their performance at 2019 National ACDA (Amanda Rasom, conductor).
LaBarr adapted the text, making it less specific to Christmas and more relatable to peace and inner light. In the octavo’s “About The Work” notes, LaBarr writes:
“This text, while originally written about Advent and the anticipation of Christmas, uses wonderfully universal words that relate to ideas of peace and hope. Jan’s blessing makes me think that within each of us is the ability to work towards peace. It doesn’t take a monumental action, just many little kindnesses that we can show to others every day which radiate out to bring light to the whole of humanity. When we love, accept, and care for all of our neighbors—despite our differences—we find that the light that the dark world so desperately needs begins in us.”
I really appreciate LaBarr’s adaptations; they keep many of the original intentions of the text, but allow the song to be accessible for many different settings and ensembles (including public schools, and concerts where Christian-themed texts may not be comfortable for all singers or audience members). The ideas of light, peace, inner strength, belonging, and community are at the forefront, which are all arguably universal themes. Especially in this current Covid climate, when some groups haven’t been able to make music together for going on 18 months and may still not be able to any time soon due to Delta variants, those themes are doubly heart-warming and heart-wrenching. I encourage you to read the texts at the links below.
This piece is in C major, with few if any accidentals. Everything is tonal and diatonic, which can be a boon when jumping back into music making after a long hiatus. I know my ensembles will need time to refresh their music literacy skills – and C major is a great place to do that. There are certainly skips and leaps – the work is not stepwise. But, the harmonic structure goes where you expect it to go, and the piano accompaniment is supportive. Melodic motives also return throughout the work, so once a phrase is learned, singers will see that material again.
VOCAL LINES & PHRASING
LaBarr’s vocal lines are flowing and moving. Great for tone-building as an ensemble. That’s another thing I know my ensembles will need to work on when we return to full group singing – being a team, singing a phrase together, making music as a collective cohesive unit. The lines move from unison to 2-part to 3-part, and there is very little 3-part polyphonic work; most of the design is homophonic or melody + echo/descant/countermelody. Perfect for supporting beautiful ensemble tone, balance, and blend after a long hiatus.
Additionally, the upper harmony or countermelody is often in the Sop1 part, while Sop2/Alto sing melody or homophonic harmony. So, the Soprano 1s get a chance to practice not being on the melody and/or not having the primary rhythm.
The setting is a lilting 12/8 compound structure. A great opportunity to teach (or review) compound rhythmic literacy. Alternatively, the rhythmic patterns recur throughout the piece, so these could be taught by rote, depending on what teaching and learning aspects you are focusing on with this particular piece.
To assist in programming decisions, teaching approaches, or rehearsing this piece, here is a brief layout of the song’s structure:
M3-9 theme part A, unison
M10-13 theme part B, unison
M14-19 theme part B’, two part (S2/A on melody, S1 upper harmony, all same rhythms)
M20-26 theme part A, two part (S2/A on melody, S1 on echo/different rhythm)
M27-35 theme part B’, three part
—S1 same upper harmony as before, A on new lower harmony, S2 still on melody
M37-46 new material, motivic with slight variations
—2m motive, unison
—Same 2m motive, 3part homophonic
—Same 2m motive, 3 part staggered entrances
—Same 2m motive rhythmically, 3 part homophonic, new chords
—Same 2m motive rhythmically, unison then 3 part homophonic, slight text change
M47-50/end motivic call back to the opening theme part A, ends in unison
I don’t yet know when my first rehearsal will be, or where, or if I can have my full ensembles or only small groups. Or if there are even any live performances in our near future. But I do know that this piece will be on that first concert; I look forward to singing it with open arms and open hearts, whenever we finally have the chance.
|Title:||Where the Light Begins|
|Date of Composition:||2018|
|Text Source:||Poetry published in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessing for the Seasons, Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015|
|Subject(s), Genre:||Peace, light, belonging, inner strength, community|
|Voicing Details:||Unison, 2-part, and SSA|
|Publisher:||Walton Music, WW1820|
Publisher’s scrolling-music preview below:
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.