Six Questions with Paul Crabtree

Aug 6, 2013

Get to know Paul Crabtree, the innovative composer whose music we've sung for over 10 years. We'll premiere his new commission at The Best of Chicago a cappella: A 20th Anniversary Celebration. He also joins us for free post-concert conversations after the Oct. 12 and 13 performances.

1. Why did you choose the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins for Chicago a cappella's new commission?

Chicago a cappella's 20 years of success means that they are doing something right, and so I was drawn to Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetic rendering of 'rightness'. He was weeks away from ordination when he saw a bird resting on the wind and then racing off with great assurance and beauty. This symbolized to him that the step he was about to take into the Jesuit order would transform him from The Crow, as he called his candidate-self, into a rapturous and celebratory bird, buoyed by the Spirit of rightness. The Windhover is his ecstatic response to this epiphany. 

2. Describe your compositional process for The Windhover.

Since hearing the poem read or sung flattens out much of the ambiguity that is meant for the eye and inner ear of the reader, it's hard to set it in a way that adds rather than subtracts. So I set the text narratively, using a church equivalent of the message that the poet is initially struggling with; Es flog ein kleins Valdvoegelein is a German folksong that was turned into a hymn (reaching America as O Day of Rest and Gladness.) Beginning with exiting a church service and sighting the bird, the piece works to transform the folksong into a hymn, just as the bird-epiphany works to transform the poet into a priest.

3. What is your favorite piece that you've composed that Chicago a cappella has performed and why?

The Valley of Delight was an unwitting requiem for my brother, who died suddenly of brain cancer last year. The last movement is about deterioration; the repeating harmony slowly starts to break down and the imagery is about the onset of night. It's very simple, and 'less is more.'

4. If I weren't a composer, I would be…

A baker (which I have been) or a priest (which I have never been). Yeast symbolizes sin, bad behavior, evil in the New Testament, and yet yeast also produces the two central symbols of Christian redemption, the wine and the bread.

5. What are you currently listening to on your iPod?

Joni Mitchell's 1976 Album Hejira, nine songs about her road trip from Maine to Los Angeles. I have listened to them about a thousand times, mining them for material for a set of liturgical choral pieces about loneliness. Wilderness time interests me right now; it often feels so arid, and yet it often leads to peak experiences. I am also stuck on some outdoor dance music from 1551 by Susato that makes me boisterously happy.

6. If I could change one thing  about classical music, what would it be?

Only one? I would make today's new music more willing to engage with difficult subject matter. Contemporary art is fearless, and the modern art museums are full of people, but most contemporary music risks very little, and in the end says very little. Not that The Windhover is in any way a shocker; its message is that daily life can be full of divine fire.

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