Thanks to Phillip, conductor, and composer Kyle for sharing some background on the commissioning and premiere of a uniquely moving, interactively-composed work. The Other Side invites singer contributions: narration, spoken word, melody and/or improvisation. It can be accompanied by piano; keyboard with bass, percussion, etc; or available accompaniment tracks.
Kyle’s comments came written, and Phillip’s came from an interview. They have been edited for length.
How was it conceived? Whose idea was it?
Kyle Pederson: I had the opportunity to perform with Phillip and VESOTA at a recent ACDA regional conference, and we knew we “clicked”…and we talked about the possibility of collaborating on something in the future.
I think I probably reached out to Phillip in late April of 2020. We were over a month into the pandemic, and it was clear it would be a longer haul than initially anticipated. I wanted to provide a musical vehicle for students to process their experiences—what they were seeing, hearing, feeling, learning—and to become co-creators in that musical work. And as the challenges and trauma of 2020 continued to unfold (George Floyd, Jan 6 Capitol insurrection, polarization, violence, inequity, etc) I hoped to provide a jumping off point for choirs to think about being on the “other side” of all this…and whether they would they live and think differently after all these experiences.
Phillip Shoultz, III: After our March 2020 ACDA performance, I was looking for a piece that would resonate in people’s lives. We hadn’t realized that we’d be dealing with more than COVID. But once George Floyd happened we realized we were going to be grappling with a lot more. And the longer we were in it, the more circumstances started to emerge.
What was the timeline from agreement to premiere?
GPS: Kyle started noodling in April of 2020. We made a video talking about the ideas. I watched that with the students, and got their buy-in on it. He visited our Zoom room and we had kind of a working session. Then he presented us with a score. That was in the fall of 2020, but we didn’t really start working on it until 2021. I knew that I wanted it on our third virtual concert of the season entitled “Create.” That virtual concert premiered in April. So there wasn’t a commission with a hard date in mind. We at Vocal Essence we often work that way, without a hard date.
The world live premiere is October 16th, and Kyle will be on the piano. We will perform it a few times this summer; it will be in our repertoire. And it’s even evolving with us. Some of the students who were involved in the initial conception have graduated and are out of town. It’s nice that this is a piece where that’s OK.
It strikes me that this is a verbal version of what happens with a jazz ensemble.
GPS: Yes, absolutely – I love that analogy. That was really the mindset. One of my principles is that I want us to be able to think more broadly about what choral music can be and how it can borrow from other genres of music, and how it can expand. We have this framework, and you can sing what’s on the page exactly as it is. But the fact that there is the opportunity to create more, to add to, and shift and change just expands the possibilities. It helps us to think differently about this art form that we all know and love.
How did you solicit input from the singers?
GPS: That’s part of a pedagogy that I’m codifying. It’s a process of eliciting feedback and ideas, and finding a way to gain consensus through trial and error, or just experimenting with it. A lot of it was generated from talking with the choir collectively: what are the ideas we want to hear expressed in this piece? We know the title, we know the hook, we know the refrain, what do we want to say? So there were a number of small groups that were brainstorming some of the thematic possibilities. Then we got together in the large group and laid all of those out.
The spoken word sections were all [created] after that process of getting everyone’s ideas and settling in on the themes that were recurring. I just asked, “Who really wants to work on this now, to start to create something?” There were four who really wanted to dig in. So they met outside of choir time and began to craft what is there. They ran it by me and I said “OK! Yes, that’s amazing, let’s go. That’s better than anything I could have come up with.”
Then the musical improvisation at the end, that was an in-rehearsal thing. I walked them through the chord progression and just kept playing it and said “OK, who’s got an idea that you want to put into the space?” It was like a jam session. Someone would sing a motif and then we would sing it back. That inspired something else. We just kept layering on until we found a groove and the motifs that we liked. Then I put those people around the room and asked everyone to “Go to the one you want to do.” We checked to see if it was balanced, and made a few adjustments. Then we asked them “How can you make it your own? Can you harmonize with it, or slightly vary the rhythm?” With this kind of piece, it doesn’t need to be exactly the same. A little extra variety personalizes it.
It’s important to teach the choir members how to work in small groups. I like to think that I run my rehearsals in a way that models how they’re going to engage when they’re in small groups, whether I’m around or not. So, the whole rehearsal pedagogy – asking questions, getting input, trying things out, when we’re working on a piece, taking their answers and embedding it into what we do and then giving feedback on it. It’s bigger than buy in, it’s getting the students to begin to think structurally, whether it’s a musical concept, or a vocal concept, or something related to the text.
This piece was created to give the singers a vehicle to process difficult events and forces in this particularly fraught time. Do either of you have plans for other similar ventures?
KP: Another recent piece, Choked Air was commissioned and premiered by Roosevelt High School Concert Choir in Sioux Falls, SD, directed by Robyn Starks Holcomb. Students were heavily invested in that project as co-creators of the text. There are several places in that piece where choirs are encouraged to make the piece “their own” and adapt the text to their particular circumstance and experience. More broadly, I love the idea of creating more structures or templates that choirs may use as they dig in to the creative process.
I can imagine the co-creation process can seem intimidating to choral directors. Have you taken steps to address this?
KP: You’re absolutely right…engaging choral students in the creative process isn’t something that’s often emphasized in choral/teacher prep programs, and there’s not a lot of directors doing it yet so it can be difficult to find exemplars/inspiration. So this piece is really structured to provide maximum support to directors. There are rehearsal and performance instrumental tracks, and directors really have options of how much “additional creation” is included in the piece. For example, if directors would prefer not to tackle the “build your own bridge” section, they can simply omit those measures and jump right to the ending.
Any thoughts or advice for commissioning organizations?
KP: Ready and willing composers are standing by to help you bring co-creation to life. Lots of emerging composers out there…and likely a fee more reasonable than you’d expect.
Are there lessons from your non-musical activities that guide you in your thoughts about nurturing performers and audiences?
KP: My first career was as a teacher (7th grade geography, primarily). I learned right away that students would learn more, and be more engaged, with more immersive experiences in my classroom. And if I could help them FEEL something in the classroom, that was gold. As I think about composing, or structuring a concert, program or worship service, I hope to bring that same commitment to immersion. I believe choirs, audiences, and congregations want to FEEL something and be taken on a journey. Through our music and programming we can help that happen.
What considerations do you keep in mind for promoting wellness through your programming, rehearsing, or composing?
GPS: I think it’s essential. This goes back to my core values as a leader of these ensembles. Every director has to figure out what they prioritize. For me priority number one is to unlock creativity and expression. [Then I’m] prioritizing that each and every person can show up as they want to show up. We’re going to affirm their identity. To create a sense of belonging, the community has to come to some shared understandings about the ways we’re going to engage. I’m a big believer this culture has to be created together through conversation, or responding to some prompts that are already in place.
So for me it’s the same for all age levels, though it plays itself out differently. There is always time in the rehearsal for conversation about the music, applying it to life’s experiences. Or there’s time in the rehearsal to just name your day, talk about where you are, what you can give, and what you need from others to be successful.
It’s especially important early in the rehearsal. I call my warmups Body, Mind, and Voice, a term that I took from my time in the Voice Care network. I love the concept that we’re not just warming up the voice, but we’re aligning the body, mind and voice together. This means that vocal exercises are not enough, we need breathing exercises, we need physical movement, we need things to see how our concentration is working. But we also need time to express where we are, and maybe exhale some baggage from the day. I’m a firm believer that when people feel a culture where they’re affirmed and supported, they’re willing to do more to make sure it’s successful – work harder, take time to work on their own because they feel like it’s theirs. They’re not going to let it fail or be substandard.
Dennis Friesen-Carper is a versatile conductor, composer, and keyboardist with performances in major venues of North America, China, and Europe. Former Music Director of the Pasadena Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and Indiana Opera North, he is experienced with school and church choirs and instrumental ensembles. He is active as guest conductor and composer, most recently at Shanghai University, Wuhan Conservatory, and with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra of Warsaw.
Commissioners include the Houston Symphony, Houston Chamber Singers, Tucson Symphony, Zhejiang Symphony and Symphony Chorus, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Lutheran Music Program, and Augsburg Fortress, with recent sacred works premiered in Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Innocents, his oratorio with Walter Wangerin, Jr. on the abuse of power, received the 2010 Arlin G. Meyer Prize.
As Reddel Professor of Music at Valparaiso University, Dr. Friesen-Carper created the all-student Symphony, conducted opera, musicals, and oratorio, taught composition, conducting, and improvisation. He has collaborated with Chinese musicians for over twenty years, including keyboards and arrangements for three tours with Silk Cedar, a Chinese/American fusion band.