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!


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
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!


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
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.

18SS + MVHS = ♫

We have our email address listed on our website, so it’s probably not too surprising to hear we get a lot of email. While most of them come from relatives of deposed dictators requesting our banking information, every once in a while a message comes through that makes sifting through special offers for herbal supplements worth it. This particular story starts with one such email we received last fall from Brett Taylor in Orem, UT.

Brett is better known as Mr. Taylor to the teenage population of Orem, where he directs the choirs at Mountain View High School. It’s fair to say that MVHS likes to sing: nearly 25% of the students there sing in one of the six choirs Brett conducts. The top choirs get to head out on tour during spring break, and this year they came to Washington, D.C. Their itinerary included some pretty cool stops, like a performance at Mount Vernon and a tour of the White House, but Brett also wanted to connect with a group in DC’s thriving choral scene.

So out of all the choirs in DC, why did Brett reach out to us? As it turns out, Brett had used our recording of Windham by Daniel Read as an example for his choirs on how to sing early American music! Needless to say, this was a connection we had to make.

The MVHS choirs showed up at our home base, First Trinity Lutheran Church, on a Friday night in April. In true choir tour form, all 150 of them in matching bright red t-shirts. It was actually a perfect fashion choice: it was the same night as a Capitals game at the Verizon Center just a few blocks away, so they fit right in with the hockey fans.

The evening started off with both Brett and our director Ben leading a few warmups. We tend to come back to our favorite many times throughout a season, so it was fun to learn a few more to add to our rotation.

Two of the MVHS groups performed first, and boy could they sing. They didn’t choose simple music either; selections included Rheinberger’s Abendlied, an arrangement of one of 18SS’ favorite spirituals Deep River, Pentatonix’s original song Run To You, and the classic American tune Down in the River to Pray. Justin, our resident German scholar, gave them a few pointers on their pronunciation in the Rheinberger, but their singing earned universal praise. Their accompanist did appreciate the note that you should look joyful while you’re singing!

We then took the stage, singing a somewhat ironic pair of songs that we will perform at our 10th Anniversary Concert on June 20. Why ironic? Sleep by Eric Whitacre was followed by I Do Not Sleep by our own Jess Yeatermeyer. No offense to Eric, but I Do Not Sleep was the crowd favorite. A group of MVHS students found Jess at the end of the night to get the sheet music, and they performed it last week at their final concert of the school year!

MVHS’ third and largest choir performed last, singing Victoria’s double choir dynamo Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. Renaissance polyphony this dense usually comes with the warning ”Don’t Try This At Home”, but these kids absolutely nailed it. Crisp rhythms, interplay between the choirs, totally synchronized cadences - they had it all.

We wrapped up the night by combining forces and teaching all of MVHS’ singers the South African carol Hloholonofatsa. They caught on quick, and it was a truly joyous way to end this incredible event.

It was a true pleasure to share our music and story with such a talented group of high school students. The founding members of the 18th Street Singers weren’t all that much older than our visitors when they first started singing together ten years ago. Hopefully we demonstrated to the choirs of MVHS that you can keep making high-quality music with your friends after graduating from school, and that starting your own choir is the perfect way to do it!

This post was written by the 18th Street Singers managing director, Henry Clapp

The New Yorkers Invade


Like (I assume) the majority of you reading this post, I am a wholehearted, certified, 100% choir nerd. And for us self-professed, dedicated dweebs, nothing rivals choir tour. Not only do these trips allow you to show off your latest musical tips and tricks to a fresh audience, but you also get to “bond” (*party*) with your choir BFFs. Think “Pitch Perfect,” but dorkier. And then think dorkier than that.

Fun and games aside, there’s something profoundly special that inevitably appears during tour, and that’s why I was beyond excited when the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus (YNYC) made the decision to embark on the adventure this year. Like our fantastic DC hosts the 18th Street Singers (ed: aw shucks), we’re a volunteer choir made up young professionals; amazing, exciting people including full-time musicians, computer whizzes, wolves of Wall Street, teachers, students, and more. These members already give a great deal of themselves to the choir, so their desire to commit further time and energy to the ensemble demonstrates their love of the music and the group. The theme for our 2013-14 New York season has been RE (our winter concert was RE/Mix, a selection of classic Christmas songs done in new ways by our young composer friends), and sticking with that, I think there are a range of RE words that capture our thoughts behind this tour:

- REset: Tour always serves as a great way to get your bearings. As an ensemble, you’re able to put so much focus into your traveling repertoire, and since we're hoping to REcord a CD within the next year, having an opportunity to reset ourselves and approach all our music with renewed dedication is an invaluable one.

- REinvent: Another benefit of tour is the exposure you get to the rest of the ensemble. YNYC is already a tight-knit group, but spending a nonstop weekend together is bound to increase that connection even further. This deeper level of friendship allows you to transform and reinvent your music-making because you’re so in tune with your fellow singers. We also can’t wait to hear the incredible 18th Street Singers, and I know that their musical mastery will inspire us to reinvent parts of our music, too.

- REsonate: Perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled at the prospect of sharing our music with a new audience and seeing what resonates with them. The beauty of music is its ability to touch every person and place differently, and we can’t wait to see what DC has to offer us.

This invader guest post was written by Young New Yorkers’ Chorus marketing/social media manager and parallel-universe-Mike-Rowan Lucy Mathias.

P.S. What’s this DC performance that Lucy speaks of? Well, since you asked, here are the deets:

The Young & the Freshest: Young New Yorkers’ Chorus + 18th Street Singers
Saturday, March 8 | 7:30 PM
The Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes
1217 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005

Tickets: $12 advance | $15 door

Click here to buy