A qualified success. Putni and my three-in-one premiere.


In December 2005 I learned that the Riga-based women’s vocal ensemble, Putni (Birds), was coming to Liepaja to give a performance at the local theater. I had recently written a new a cappella piece for eight women’s voices, a setting of Ihara Saikaku’s (1642-93) haiku:

I have gazed at it now
For two years too long
The moon of the floating world.

I contacted Antra Drege, the director of Putni, via email, prior to their performance, and she agreed to meet me afterwards and to receive my score. They gave a very good performance of works by several living Latvian composers, most of which were written expressly for Putni. Like any good vocal ensemble, they often create thematic programs, and this one, just prior to Christmas (Ziemassvetki), was holiday-tinted in a distinctly Pagan way. Historically, the ancient tribes of Latvia held a set of religious beliefs that were decidedly earth-centered. These nature-worshippers resisted Christianity to such a degree that the Pope sent Germanic crusaders to found the capitol city of Riga in the early 1200’s and to begin the process of conversion in earnest. However, this pagan strand persists to this day, with many holding (what strikes me as superstitious) beliefs in things like rivers capable of healing diseases and forests with magical energies, etc. I know many Latvians who flock to the countryside at every opportunity, and I was once showed a place in the forest that was considered an ancient cathedral. The argument for it being a place suitable for worship was compelling, actually.

Perhaps this pagan strand is what made the text I’d chosen attractive to Antra. In any case, a few months later, she contacted me and said that she wanted to premiere the piece in Riga on May 1, 2006 at Rigas Jaunais Teatris (New Theater of Riga). A few weeks prior to the premiere I traveled to Riga for a rehearsal. There were several problems.

The first problem was with their English diction, something I was taking for granted up ‘til then. Not all composers feel this way, but I always approach a text as if I am in service of it, not the other way around. The text determines everything I do in a setting. Rhythm. Mood. Gesture. Climax. Also, I have sung in choirs on and off for fifteen years, and I became quite a stickler about diction, maybe even finicky about it. Luckily, that choral experience left me with a few strategies for solving diction problems. Now, I didn’t blame them, as some of these sounds simply don’t exist in Latvian, and are therefore difficult for them to perceive or create. I appreciate that difficulty. I mean, just try making one of those African clicks like Miriam Makeba or the Russian word for ‘you’, and you’ll appreciate it too. Latvian does not have the ‘th’ sound of ‘the’, nor does the letter ‘w’ even exist in their alphabet. I remembered my college choral director making us put a little ‘h’ in front of words like ‘world’, as a southerner might pronounce it, to make the start of the word clear, and that helped. I kept pushing them to elide terminal consonants with beginning vowels between words and also helped them pronounce ‘the’ as best as I could. They seemed a little crestfallen after that, probably because they’d felt proud of their English pronunciation before I’d arrived.

They were also having some difficulty with the rhythms in certain passages, which actually leads me back to a discussion of language. It’s no surprise that a nation’s language, its stresses, rhythms and scansion have a profound impact on the music of that nation’s composers, and consequently, on that nation’s musicians. Latvian, almost without exception, is a language that places syllabic stress on the first syllable of a word, no matter how many syllables are present. It’s all trochees and dactyls. And if there’s any weakness I’ve encountered among Latvian musicians, it’s a discomfort with syncopation and complex rhythms. (It was to address these issues that I was later hired by the Emil Melngailis Music Academy and also by Putni to lead them through rhythm and coordination workshops. I have been working on and off on a musicianship textbook that aims to incorporate world music and eurhythmics into to the aural skills / ear-training curriculum for university level music majors, but this is a topic for a later post.)

Now, on to the problems with the piece that were entirely my fault: First, the first soprano had notes to sing for long stretches of time right on her break (for any non-musicians reading this, the break is the small part of your vocal range where your voice transitions from one register to another, as in from chest voice to head voice, and spending long periods singing right in that spot can get very fatiguing). Second, the climax just wasn’t working for me. There were two or three weeks remaining before the premiere, so I figured I’d just sit it out and see if the remaining time would enable them to make something big and climactic out of those passages. I also figured that while it was fatiguing for the first soprano in rehearsal, the piece was still only about five minutes long, and she would be able to deal with it in performance.

The day of the premiere, I traveled once more from Liepaja to Riga, and showed up at the theater for the dress rehearsal a few hours before the concert. Antra had gotten a call from one of her sopranos earlier that day, saying that she was too sick to perform. While it wouldn’t affect all the pieces on the program, all of which were premieres, it did affect mine, as my setting was for divisi into eight parts, and now there were seven singers. We had a vibraphonist play the missing vocalist’s part. I was chagrined to learn that this would also be recorded for Latvian radio. Antra was apologetic, but so was I; I could only imagine how stressful it must have been for her, and I’ve learned to roll with these kinds of punches.

Now I’m getting to the part where I notice a difference between New York and Latvia, one that reflects well on Latvia. By the end of the performance, missing soprano notwithstanding, I had already decided that I was unhappy with the piece. That passage with the climax just wasn’t working, and that fatigued first soprano was causing the whole thing to flatten over time, an issue that all choirs struggle with anyway, but my setting certainly wasn’t helping. So, Antra left resolved to make good on the performance sans soprano, and I left resolved to make changes to the piece.

I dropped the piece down a step and rewrote that passage. Putni performed it a second time, and because of my edits, Antra, with a somewhat playful flair, called it a premiere in the program. The problem with the soprano’s break was solved. But I was still unhappy with that passage, and beginning to feel embarrassed by my inability to make it happen. Antra let me have still another go at it. She eventually called this version ‘the golden version’. Latvians often translate positive descriptions using terms involving light. She ‘premiered’ the piece yet a third time, and indeed this was the golden version.

At the time, I was pleasantly surprised that Antra stuck with me. Not that I’m taking it for granted, but I have also come to see this as a facet of Latvian character. My experience in New York has been that competition forces musicians to have certain characteristics: exemplary sight-reading skills, for example, or the ability to play well with previously unknown colleagues, or to prepare extraordinarily difficult pieces in a short period of time. The downside to this is that they can do it so often that it’s almost thoughtless. Once they have done a piece, they are DONE with it, never to look back. On to the next gig. Maybe an apt comparison is the fable of the tortoise and the hare. My experience with Putni was that they still are willing to take on difficult work. They just manage it slowly and methodically. They had difficulty with rhythm, so they hired me to address the problem. And perhaps the reason they had patience with my multiple attempts at that climax passage is because they don’t expect instant perfection from themselves. They commit to the process as much as to the goal of performance.

Since its three premieres, Putni has performed my piece at least once or twice more in Latvia. They are now coming to do a brief tour of America, and are including my piece on their tour.

Please do support these fine, hardworking musicians if you can.

BOSTON – Sunday, 29. October 13:00
Trimdas Congregation Hall
58 Irving Street, Brookline, MA
(617) 524-2210

WASHINGTON – Saturday, 4. November 19:30
Washington Ev.-Lut. Church Congregation Hall
400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, MD
(301) 869-3127

CLEVELAND – Friday, 10. November 19:00
United Congregation Hall
1385 Andrews Avenue, Lakewood, OH
(216) 521-1435

MINNEAPOLIS – Sunday, 12. November 16:00
Minneapolis-St.Paul Latvian Ev.-Lut. Congregation Hall
3152 17th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN
(651) 646-1980

STILLWATER – Monday, 13. November 19:00
625 5th Street North, Stillwater, MN
(651) 275-0550

EAU CLAIRE – Tuesday, 14. November 19:00
Davies Center – Davies Theater 
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI
(715) 834-1874, 836-4735, 836-4318

MANHATTAN – Friday, 17. November 20:00
St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville
404 E. 87th Street, New York, NY
(212) 289-6030, (914) 234-3339

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