choral music

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?


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
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 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