Ain’t That Good News

May 1996

Program Notes

Been Down Into the Sea spiritual, arr. Wayland Rogers (b. 1941)

Shape-Note Tunes

 
Midnight Cry Anon. (The New Harp of Columbia)
Farewell My Friends Anon., arr. Malcolm Daglish
Wondrous Love attrib. to Christopher (Southern Harmony)

Deep-South Melodies

 

Deep River spiritual, arr. Henry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)
Roll, Jordan, Roll  

Birth of Soul, Part 1

Peter Saltzman (b. 1961)
     1. Release The Pain  
     2. Go Down, Moses  
     3. In That Land  
     4. Don’t Look  
     5. I Will Be (Sent You)  
     6. Heal The World (That’s What God Said)  
Good Night, The Lord’s Comin‘ trad., arr. Nashville Bluegrass Band
INTERMISSION  
They Are Falling All Around Me Bernice Johnson Reagon
Now is the Cool of the Day Jean Ritchie, arr. J. Miller

Soon ‘Ah Will Be Done

Spiritual, arr. William Dawson

A Quiet Place Ralph Carmichael, arr. Jerry Rubino
Medley:  Where The Sun Will Never Go Down spirituals, arr. Joseph Jennings

 

INTRODUCTION

The concert brings together a number of musical styles that have captivated me for years.  My love for folk hymns stems from an early childhood spent in New England Quaker circles.  From years in the Chicago Children’s Choir comes my enthusiasm for black spirituals; the late Joseph Brewer, our conductor and arranger, instilled in my ears the standard voicings of the genre, though at the time it just seemed like he was building chords at the piano for us to sing.  I was introduced to improvised black gospel singing during afternoon rehearsals with the high-school choir of Lena McLin, now retired from Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park.  Finally, during the late 1980s, while living in the North Carolina Piedmont, I fell in love with the close-harmony bluegrass style of white gospel music, now being so beautifully recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.

Together, these repertories and performance styles have made a profound and lasting contribution to “homegrown” American music.  Jazz, bluese, and R&B are certainly unthinkable without black gospel music, just as gospel music is rooted in the blues.  A terrific book, The Rise of Gospel Blues by Michael Harris, documents Thomas A. Dorsey’s work in Chicago to fuse these genres into the modern language of blues-flavored gospel music,  Harris points out that this music is largely a product of the Great Migration of blacks from the Deep South to Chicago around 1890-1920.  The mainstream black churches in Chicago at first resisted the downhome style, which had connotations of “storefront” worship; but they were forced to accept gospel choirs, even on Sunday morning, in order to retain the new members.

Current forms of white gospel music have their roots in the rural South of the early 1800s.  The Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1820) was a time of tremendous religious fervor, spreading from the eastern seaboard into Kentucky and beyond.  Revivals or “camp-meetings” placed a high value on the personal conversation experience.  Some scholars of revival singing around1810 suggest that blacks and whites rejoiced together at camp-meetings, inventing both melodies and texts on the spot.  These new revival texts survive in pairs of lines, known as “wandering couplets.”  My favorite couplet is the following:

When e’er you meet with troubles and trials on your way,
Then cast your cares on Jesus, and don’t forget to pray.

John Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1810) was the first book devoted largely to the new folk hymns, a genre later dominated by the legendary Sacred Harp  of 1844.

Since then, countless rural white southerners have learned their music through books with “shaped notes”--usually four shapes, representing notes of the musical scale.  These are evidently easier to learn than the lines and spaces of the staff.  Four shapes for seven pitches create inevitable doublings, in the parallel fifths and fourths so characteristic of the style.

African-American spirituals occupy such a permanent place in our musical life that they often seem ageless.  It is therefore hard to imagine that white audiences have only been hearing them since 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire.  In that year, the Fisk Jubilee Singers took their masterful choral arrangements on the road, and choral singing has never been the same since.

And the tradition continues with everybody singing each other’s music, and styles cross-pollinating left and right.  In a testament to the musical melting-pot, today we offer for you two world premieres.  They are works by white composers, who live in Chicago and are deeply indebted musically to the black spiritual.  The challenge of using existing melodies is to retain the old flavor while creating something fresh; both composers succeed mightily on both counts, and it is a privilege to sing their music.  It is also a joy, as always, to work with the eight extraordinary singers of Chicago a cappella, whose musicianship and talent are adaptable to so many different genres and styles.  (Special thanks to Trevor Mitchell for his expert coaching in dialect and diction matters). To all of my colleagues for this concert, I offer my deepest thanks and admiration.
      

—Jonathan Miller

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Been Down Into the Sea (world premiere)
spiritual, arr. Wayland Rogers
Wayland Rogers’ active musical life revolved around singing, teaching, and conducting, as well as composing.  A baritone, with a repertoire ranging from the medieval to the avant-garde, he is equally at home in opera, oratorio, and song, and is the recipient of a Grammy nomination.  He has taught at several universities and is presently on the faculty at Loyola University.  He is Artistic Director/Conductor of the Camerata Singers and Music Director of North Shore Unitarian Church.  He has composed over 60 works for voice, including songs, chamber music, and choral works, which are receiving worldwide attention.  His publishers include Jackman Music Press and Boosey & Hawkes; “Been Down Into The Sea” will be published by Boosey & Hawkes later this year.

This arrangement does a splendid job of showcasing the voicings and chord spacings so idiomatic to the black spiritual, while making a new work that is truly Rogers’ own.  An unusual key change explodes into the bright key of A major; the music deftly returns to the home key of F major for the close.  In the final chorus, Rogers includes a neat stretching effect at the end: the women and the baritone soloist slow down the tune, while the men’s chorus continues its fast, syncopated accompaniment, like the incessant rumbling of the sea.

Shape-Note Tunes

These three tunes give a basic sense of the variety found in the shape-note repertory.  Common to all of them is the intensely clear, locked-in tuning that open fifths and octaves make available.  Shape-note choirs typically sit on wooden benches in a square formation, with the leader in the middle.  A good group can truly shake the rafters.

“Midnight Cry” comes from the facsimile edition of The New Harp of Columbia, an East-Tennessee tune book; the octave doublings and part-switchings we add here are also common to the style.

“Farewell My Friends” is an unusual arrangement, put together by hammer-dulcimer virtuoso Malcolm Dalglish from the tune “Parting Friends,” a staple in the repertory.

We conclude the set with the original three-voice version of “Wondrous Love,” probably the best known shape-note tune of all, found in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, of which I am fortunate to own an 1854 edition.

Deep-South Melodies

Henry T. Burleigh was one of the first Black American composers to become fully steeped in the theory and practice of Western European harmony.  Of his “Deep River,” Edith Borroff comments: “Burleigh’s settings of traditional Black spirituals are actually one possible interaction of many between the two musical traditions: the pure melody of the Black tradition joined to the pure harmony of the European tradition.  The result is basically a rich, Romantic, harmonic piece with a stronger melodic content than such works generally had.” This tune has been arranged by a range of composers, from Burleigh to Sir Michael Tippett, who used it in his opera A Child of Our Time.

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” has also seen many arrangements, but none in my experience is quite like this one.  In that somewhat random way that we can learn new music these days, I picked up this one from a bluegrass compilation sent to me on cassette in 1993 by my brother-in-law, Time Evans, a longtime resident of the North Carolina mountains.  He finds people like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Nashville Bluegrass Band (NBB) long before they hit mainstream radio or Prairie Home Companion. We had unexpected fun with this piece in western Kentucky, where our singing was joined by spontaneous finger-snaps from server hundred high school students in the audience. (“Good Night, the Lord’s Coming,” with which we close the first half of the concert, is from the same NBB collection.)

Birth of Soul (Part 1)—A Jewish Spiritual-Blues Suite (world premiere)
Peter Saltzman

Peter Saltzman (b. 1961) began playing piano by ear at the age of three and composing songs at the age of 10.  After extensive private studies, he majored in jazz and composition at Indiana University School of Music and piano and composition at Eastman School of Music.  His compositions include three string quartets: the second won the ASCAP Composer’s Competition at the Aspen Music Festival in 1984, and the third was premiered in June 1995 in Mexico City by Mexico’s leading quartet and broadcast nationally on Mexican TV.  He has also composed “Walls,” a dance work for orchestra (commissioned by choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff), to be premiered by Dallas Black Dance Theatre at the King Center during the Atlanta Olympics; “Conneat,” an opera in two acts (premiered in Santa Monica, CA in 1992); “Variations” for Orchestra; “Radical Funk” for chamber orchestra; numerous works for solo piano (some to be released on a CD later this year with the composer performing); “Trio Trilogy Pt. 1” (three movements for piano, clarinet, and bassoon); and a brass quintet.  He has also written hundreds of songs, both vocal and instrumental, in jazz and pop styles, and released an album of some of these in 1988.  Peter is planning a solo piano concert tour in which he will play both his own works and those of great American composers like Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, J.P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington.  Peter, his wife Laurel, and their daughter Veronica live in Chicago.

Notes by Peter Saltzman

As its name implies, “Birth of Soul, Part 1” is the first of a multi-part work.  The other planned parts are for orchestra (part 2) and chorus with orchestra (part 3).  Part 1 was written specifically, and happily, for Chicago a cappella.

What do I mean by “Birth of Soul”? What I really mean is birth of the human soul.  What were various events in human history that helped define human soulfulness and spirituality--that which separates us from the animals and connects us to God and the idea of transcendence?

“Birth of Soul, Part 1” deals primarily with the Jewish people.  I wanted to write a piece that examined how and why our people came into being, and what makes us Jewish--not in the ethnic sense, but in the spiritual and ethical and even political sense.  Ultimately the piece is about our covenant with God, what it means, and what we are supposed to do about it.

To prepare for this work, I did something perhaps radical, considering my upbringing: I read the entire Torah.  I grew up in a secular but political Jewish family.  We did not read the Torah; there was barely any mention of God at all.  However, while our parents did not rear us on the spiritual aspects of Judaism, they did instill in us a sense of its spirit, including a sense that we had moral and ethical obligations to our own people and to the world.  I have also found, partly through researching and writing this piece, that you can’t separate the political and spiritual components of Judaism: it is first and foremost a religion whose spiritual message is inseparable from some very important political ideas, notably freedom, democracy and social justice.

While the Torah itself was the primary inspiration for “Birth of Soul,” I am also indebted to Michael Lerner for his book Jewish Renewal.  This is a stunning and inspired work, which brings back to light the original message of Torah.  I recommend it to Jews and non-Jews alike.

1. Release The Pain
The first movement is about the justifiable rage that Jews and other historically persecuted peoples feel at being enslaved, tormented, and, in the case of the Holocaust, abandoned.  I suggest that once this pain is released, we may fulfill our covenant with God, which is to heal the world (last movement).

2. Go Down, Moses
This song, sung frequently at Passover seders, recalls the righteous anger at being enslaved.  It is no accident that I use an African-American spiritual in this work.  From a purely musical viewpoint, I am so heavily indebted to black music (blues, Jazz, R&B, etc.) that I sometimes wonder if I would even be composing if it didn’t exist.
Jews and African-Americans have both transformed their experiences of slavery into forms of spirituality and ethics that are available to all: language (Torah) and music (the spiritual).  The undistorted messages of Black music and Torah are one and the same: both speak of the transcendence of pain, freedom, spirituality, and the longing for social justice.

3. In That Land
This movement explores certain Jewish and African-American ideas of freedom and God that came out of the slave experience (possibly as an antidote).  The baritone solo in the middle of this section recalls the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.  This story has been interpreted as an act of defiance agains the ruling class of the time, who used idols, among other tools, to maintain power.  The story, by the way, is not in the Jewish Bible; it is part of the oral tradition.

4. Don’t Look
The light and humorous movement of the piece, “Don’t Look” deals with the story of Exodus: if a human looks into the face of Lord, he/she shall die.  Presumably, the looking directly at God is simply too much for mortals to handle.

5. “I Will Be (Sent You)”
Moses, before God at the burning bush, is fearful of his appointed role as liberator of his people.  He asks God for a concrete sign, by which the people may understand who he is.  “Give me your name, at least,” says Moses.  God’s response shatters Moses’ expectations; all he says is, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. Tell them that Ehyeh sent you.”
At issue here is the verb “ehyeh”: in the King James Bible, the English translation is “I AM THAT I AM. Tell them that ‘I am’ sent you.” While this translation is permissible--the ancient Hebrew sometimes uses the future tense to indicate present tense--it is contextually sounder to assume that the future tense is being used intentionally.  Therefore, the passage should best be understood as “I will be whom I will be.  Tell them ‘I Will Be’ sent you.”  Using that phrase as its basis, this movement explores in music the meaning of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

6. Heal The World (That’s What God Said)
The final movement, elided to the previous one, answers the question that is intimated at the end of the first movement: “Release the pain so that I can bring your message to the world.”  This movement is an attempt to discover what that message might be.  Like the text, the music here also refers back to the first movement, but this time it brings forth joy.

Good Night, the Lord’s Comin'
spiritual, arr. Nashville Bluegrass Band/ed.  Jonathan Miller

INTERMISSION

They Are Falling All Around Me
Bernice Johnson Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon--composer, historian, singer, and mother--has for over twenty years been the founding director of Sweet Honey in The Rock, a woman’s sextet whose live performances are astounding in their energy and intensity.  She is director of the program in Black American culture of the Smithsonian Institution.  Ms. Reagon hosted the acclaimed National Public Radio series, “Wade in the Water,” a history of Black music in America.

Early publications of Black gospel music typically involved two musicians: a composer and a scribe.  Reagon writes: “The early arrangements were allowed to take liberties with the composer’s work.  It was the scribe who usually created the harmonic structure and stabilized the melody...to make a good song idea a good song.”  For the painstaking transcriptions fo her own songbook, Compositions: One, “all melodies, harmonies, and rhythmic structures are my own.”

Her songs express her concerns over social justice, racism, and violence, yet she has a ravishingly tender side as well.  This song was written for Reagon’s musical role models, who have passed on, but are still available in spirit: she implores them, “Be sure to let me hear from you.”

Now Is the Cool of the Day
Jean Ritchie, arr. Jonathan Miller
Jean Ritchie is one of those blessed musicians who seems to have been around forever.  She has done for Appalachian folk music after World War II what the Carter Family had done thirty years earlier: gathered a vast repertory of rural melodies and sung them in an infectious and sincere style, to the delight of millions around the country.  Ritchie’s recordings, often accompanied with lap dulcimer, have a modal, almost Celtic flavor all their own.

This song is actually an original composition of hers, found on her 1977 album “None But One.”  The tenor harmonies give it an ethereal, misty quality, like darkness descending in a meadow outside after a long summer day.

Soon ‘Ah Will Be Done
spiritual, arr. William L. Dawson

A Quiet Place
Ralph Carmichael, arr. Jerry Rubino

These pieces how two ends of the spectrum of the Black spiritual.  Dawson’s classic arrangement has been a staple in the repertory for sixty years.  A giant in the black choral-music world, he was a professor and arranging spirituals.

By contrast, the smooth, jazz-tinged harmonies of Jerry Rubino’s arrangement take us into a different sound-world.  A very similar arrangement has been made wildly popular by the male gospel jazz sextet known as Take 6, which took the a cappella scene by storm with its first two albums and is now known around the world via radio and television.

The harmonies in “A Quiet Place” are not that unusual from a jazz-piano point of view, but choral works of this grace and sophistication, especially a cappella, are rare.  Because Take 6 does not publish its own arrangements, we are lucky to have found Rubino’s edition of this piece.

Medley: Where The Sun Will Never Go Down
spirituals, arr. Joseph Jennings

Joseph Jennings is a prolific arranger of pop tunes and spirituals, and a commissioned composer.  He is Music Director of Chanticleer, the San-Francisco-based professional men’s chorus, a position he assumed ten years ago.  He now combines that position with choral directing activities at UC-Berkeley and at school music programs in the Bay Area.

Jennings directed Chanticleer in a stunning recording of black gospel music and spirituals, released in 1990, of which this is the title track.  The task of teaching classically-trained white guys to sing gospel in an appropriate style did not happen overnight.  He writes: “One of the first things was to do away with the printed page.  What happened was sort of experience-compression and transfer.  Traditions are passed along generation to generation, but in this case within one generation but across cultures.  Rote learning is a very foreign concept to ‘trained’ musicians and some of us found it very difficult at first, but as time went on the ears developed and certain idioms and voicings became recognizable.”

Jennings does a superb job of communicating his idiom in pring, and we did learn this piece with the printed score.  Jennings’ arrangements, as well as his singing, exude a powerful energy, even in the quietest of moments.