Q and A With Composition Competition Grand Prize Winner, Matthew Lyon Hazzard!

The time is coming…one more rehearsal to tune our chords, strengthen our onsets, and triple check the tough spots. We’re getting pretty excited about how this music is shaping up, and we can’t wait to share it with you this Saturday night.

In this concert, we’ve chosen our favorite pieces performed over the last ten years. And we’ve added our favorite new pieces by promising composers to be debuted Saturday night. I guess you could call the grand prize winner of our 10th Anniversary Composition Competition, Matthew Lyon Hazzard, the favorite of the favorites.

The 18th Street Singers fell in love with As Is The Sea Marvelous from our first run through. From the delicate yet soaring melody, to the graceful interplay between parts, Hazzard masterfully evokes the sounds and movements of the sea. With his exquisite text-setting and clear understanding of choral voices, he creates a stunning landscape of sound. We are proud to premier this piece, and are thrilled to be performing the work of such a promising young composer! 

How about you Matthew, what do you have to say for yourself?

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When did you start composing? How would you describe your composition style?

I was pretty young when I started writing music. I improvised tunes and experimented with sounds on the piano throughout my teens, but it I didn’t actively pursue composition until high school. 

My composition style is very much in line with other modern choral music composers: Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, and Eric William Barnum, to name a few. They were the composers I listened to when I first fell in love with choral music, so my ear is naturally drawn to those kinds of sounds when I’m writing. That said, I also grew up listening to Radiohead and Bjork. I love those lush, sweeping landscapes of sound that they build in their music. I would say my writing stands apart from similar choral composers because of that. My language tends to be very lush with different lines coalescing to create an atmospheric kind of sound. At least, that’s what I go for.

What influences your composition style (genres, instruments, composers, etc.)?

Aside from the artists I mentioned, my pieces tend to be influenced by whatever I perform. When I wrote a setting of Agnus Dei, aspects of Stravinsky’s Mass spilled into it simply because it was what I was singing at the time. I’m also an impressionist; paintings and visual language really inspire me. For instance, the arcing figures of a Roger Dean painting (the man who made the album artwork for progressive rock band Yes) found their way into the melodic lines for one of my works. I think my setting of As Is The Sea Marvelous is more like the latter rather than the former. The poetry is so vivid that it informs the shape of the piece.

That being said, there is a composer whose influence that can be found across all my work, and that is French choral composer, Pierre Villette. When I was growing up, my family would listen to a lot of bossa nova, so jazz was already in my blood (I’ve yet to meet an extended chord that I didn’t like). However, when I heard Villette express jazz harmonies in choral music for the first time, it was life changing. His harmonic language is supremely beautiful. I think encountering his music during high school was largely one of the reasons why I decided to pursue composition as strongly as I have.

Please tell about As Is The Sea Marvelous. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

As Is The Sea Marvelous is a description of a deep, unconditional love. Like the sea, it waxes and wanes, yet remains perpetual and unchanging in the face of time. Whether the poem is about a specific person or not is up to interpretation. For me, though, the poem is about much more than that. The sea has been constant since the dawn of man, and to describe sensuality with that kind of image - to compare love itself to something as massive and enduring as the sea - only serves to show how profound love can be.

For the piece itself, I have to admit it’s one of the works I am the most proud of. There’s something about the sea as described in E. E. Cummings’ poem though that lends itself to music. The text ebbs and flows. “She goes forth out of hands, and returns into hands.” There’s a give and take to the way he phrases everything: a contrast. The way he uses language is so captivating that it kind of haunts the mind. I’ll never be able to erase the perfect image of the sea sleeping upon the world while “the earth withers, and the moon crumbles.” It’s a profoundly beautiful way of describing how something can endure.

And then - what feels like a little twist at the end - he mentions love.

What do you enjoy most about composing for voices? 

There are some deep-seated reasons why I love to write for voices. I’ve always been a singer, so I guess it immediately attracts me. There’s something more to it than that though. A few years back, my brother and I would mess around with difference tones. We would both hold a high note, and one of us would move down to create what sounded like a motorcycle revving up in our ears. As abstract as that sounds, it creates this beautiful dissonance unlike anything I’ve heard anywhere else - that is until I discovered a cappella choral music. When two voices come together and sing in perfect dissonance, there’s nothing else in the world like it. There’s a reason why it’s a choir of angels. It’s just one of those natural phenomena that makes you sit back in awe. That beauty is definitely something I feel I’ve been chasing through my music.

Meet Matthew, John and Michael on Saturday at our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
8:00pm
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

If you haven’t gotten tickets yet, go get ‘em!

Q and A with Michael Schachter, Merit Prize-Winning Composer

We can now say that our 10th Anniversary Concert is NEXT WEEK! As we work to lock our harmonies, print our programs, and work on our jazz hands (jk, that will never happen), take a moment to buy tickets and read about the second winner of our Composition Competition.

In the second Q&A with our Merit Prize-winning composers, we bring you Michael Schachter, whose piece Herbst has wowed us with its musical beauty and complexity. A PhD candidate in Music Theory and Composition at the University of Michigan, this Massachusetts native is a lifelong choir singer and composer.  Well it shows, Michael. We are impressed.

The longest and most linguistically demanding of our composition winners, Herbst sets a 1902 poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, who at the time of the writing had just moved to Paris, leaving his wife behind in Berlin. The text reflects on the inevitable falling of both leaves and humankind into death and holds out the hope that we will be caught before we hit the ground. This setting of “Herbst” is a work of art that challenges us to move through a variety of different tonalities. At various times, it reminds the listener of the German greats—a little Brahms here, a hint of Beethoven there. We look forward to premiering it!

On to words from Michael!

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When did you start composing? How would you describe your composition style? 

I have been composing as long as I can remember – my earliest little pieces go back to elementary school at least, and my piano teacher in middle school helped me compose instrumental songs into the computer using MIDI software.  It wasn’t until late in high school that I had my first formal composition lessons and started to really self-identify as a composer.  In these early lessons, I was encouraged to write in a rhapsodic, atonal style, but my compositional language today tends to be much more tightly structured and accessible.  

What influences your composition style (genres, instruments, composers, etc.)?

Oh gosh, what doesn’t?  I am a voracious music lover, and I am really inspired by musical excellence no matter what the genre.  I would say that I have been especially influenced by the styles of music that I have had the chance to perform and interact with very closely: jazz, Renaissance choral music, South Indian music, and gospel music.  Herbst in particular owes debt to Brahms (who wrote some really exquisite pieces for women’s voices later in his life, which I imitate with all of the canonic sections), as well as the great Renaissance Franco-Flemish composers Josquin des Prez and Johannes Ockeghem.

Please tell us what Herbst is about. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

Herbst owes its text to Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite early-twentieth century poets.  The poem is essentially an existential mediation, comparing our lives to falling leaves (Herbst is German for “autumn”), but the dark despondency of the bulk of the poem finally finds solace in the last stanza, when the narrator takes comfort in the presence of an Almighty that can bring this falling to rest.  My setting uses techniques such as text-painting (using musical gestures that imitate the imagery of the corresponding words) and canon (having the same melodic line repeated at regular time intervals by multiple voice parts).  There are elements in this piece that appears across many of my works, but the combination of them results in a somewhat unique aesthetic within my output.

How do you choose texts for your pieces? 

Pretty simple – I just use text that I really like!  I tend to be drawn to poetry as opposed to prose, because (I think) the relatively abstract use language makes a good match for musical imagination, and techniques like rhyme, meter, and so on map more naturally onto musical structures.  

What do you enjoy most about composing for voices? 

I am a longtime choir singer, and I am extremely moved by the idea of all these individuals putting their busy lives aside, coming together and making music with nothing but their minds and bodies.  There’s nothing – nothing! – like a beautifully tuned choir chord…

We’ll do our best Michael to tune your expertly crafted chords!

See more about Michael and his work on his website.

Join us as we premier Herbst at our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
8:00pm
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

Next week, we’ll introduce you to the Grand Prize Winner, Matthew Lyon Hazzard.

Q and A with John Milne, Composer Extraordinaire

We want to share a little something about our three incredibly talented new best friends for life, if they’ll have us. They are the winners of the 18th Street Singers’ 10th Anniversary Composition Competition, and we can’t wait to introduce them to you and perform their pieces on June 20th at our concert Something Old, Something New. (They’re the “New” part!) (Also, buy tickets!)

Let’s kick it off today with a Q&A session with John Milne, who inspired us with his piece Soldier Boy, which sets to music a poem written during World War I by English soldier Siegfried Sassoon, “Suicide in the Trenches.” In this musical rendition, the haunting melody of the opening line feels like a familiar folk tune that subtly derails into the unexpected, evoking for the listener the timeless (and universal) image of innocence marching off to battle. The simplicity and solitude of the initial melodies give way to more complicated and dissonant harmonies as the piece develops, illustrating through sound the harsh realities of war and the toll it takes on the human psyche. Solider Boy strikes at a raw emotional chord in today’s global climate, and we are honored and moved to bring it to life. 

 Enough about why we love the piece, on to John!

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When did you start composing?

I’ve been composing for a cappella and vocal groups since I was 19, i.e., for a very long time!

After a long career in pop (The Toons, two-time Gold Cabaret Award winners and early MTV act), alt-country (Long Gone Lonesome Boys) and a cappella (three-time Harmony Sweepstakes winners Chicago Voice Exchange), I’ve spent the last two years composing more serious choral pieces, some of which I’ve had the pleasure of having performed by wonderful choirs worldwide, including the Svanholm Singers from Sweden, the Vespera Women’s Choir from Toronto and, very soon, the 18th Street Singers from Washington D.C.!

Born in the US to British immigrant parents, I grew up in California and have lived in Chicago for the past 20 years.

How would you describe your composition style?

I would describe my style as neo-classical, maybe 80% Bach, 15% jazz chords and 5% Swedish folk music.

I would say my influences are the great Baroque composers and the Four Freshmen.

Please tell us what Soldier Boy is about. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

Soldier Boy is a setting of a Siegfried Sassoon poem from WWI called “Suicide in the Trenches”. Sassoon was an Englishman who served in the trenches, and the only one of the great WWI poets to survive the war. It’s about the terrible injustice that nations do to their young people, pumping them up with patriotic zeal and telling them that what they’re going to do will be heroic, then neglecting them and ignoring their sky-high suicide rates and broken minds and bodies when they return home. The fact that the basic sentiment of the poem is still relevant after over 100 years is very sad.

It is similar to other poems I’ve set, including Still Falls the Rain by Edith Sitwell, who wrote it during the bombing of London in WWII. My grandfather was Scottish and served in the trenches in WWI, and my father and mother both survived the Blitz during WWII, so these poems have personal relevance to me. I’ve also set another Siegfried Sassoon poem called “Everyone Sang” – I call the piece Everyone Suddenly Burst Out Singing.

What do you enjoy about composing for voices?

The thing I love about composing for voices is the combination of words and music and, especially with respect to a cappella, the purity of chordal blend, which isn’t possible with tempered instruments. Singing is the first and most primal instrument, the one that speaks to us most directly, and it’s, uh… angelic! 

Thanks John!  

Hear more from John Milne on his YouTube channel.

And get your tickets for our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
8:00pm
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

In the next two weeks, we’ll tell you more about our other Composition Competition winners, Michael Schachter and Matthew Lyon Hazzard.