Hour by Hour - Behind the Music
Jenny Trites here. I’m Xara’s collaborative pianist. I’ve been asked to write about the experience of writing a piece for Xara.
This is written with the disclaimer that I’m only speaking to my own experience—every composer works differently and I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize.
The biggest difference between writing a piece for Xara compared to other choirs is the specific spot the piece will occupy. Emotionally, the piece needed to fit a very specific moment in the story of the show. Musically, the piece needed to contrast the other pieces without being so different that it feels out of place. Since The Hours Turn to Nothing is an a capella show, I needed to keep the tonal relationships between pieces friendly.
After a long cup of coffee with Christina, the wish list for this piece looked like this:
Fast and rhythmic
Dramatic, with a sense of intensity and urgency
SSA or SSAA
On the short side (3-5 minutes)
Tonally friendly with the preceding piece (d-minor) and the next piece (f-sharp minor)
Looking for a text is almost always the first step for me—the right text will answer many questions about the mood, structure, metre, and tonal world of a piece.
I spent a month reading poetry looking for something just right. I read a lot of WW1 era poetry, and paid special attention to poetry by women or Canadians. I expanded my search to poets who were alive at the time of WW1, and then expanded it again to include any poet who was alive at the time of ANY war.
I bookmarked and annotated and read aloud and found a lot of poetry that a loved, but when I pulled out my manuscript paper I couldn’t write more than an initial phrase.
I returned to the script, and focused on the line of dialogue that preceded my piece. The line was a woman calling for help. Bingo. I needed to choose a text that was a cry for help. Within minutes of that realization, I had settled upon Psalm 69—it would work both as a cry for help and as a text that would belong in Camp Hill Hospital 1917.
While composing, I was thinking about the way we remember songs and poetry—we can get stuck on individual lines of music or poetry. I chose to not set the psalm in its entirety, but to choose the lines that I believed would jump into the minds of both survivors and medical personnel. These phrases are repeated in overlapping fragments.
It’s late January as I write this, and we’re three rehearsals into the show—blocking started today. While it’s nerve-wracking to be in the room while my piece is being rehearsed, I’m really excited about how it’s sounding. The choir is reaching the stage where I need to pull back as an accompanist, which means I get more and more opportunities to listen and watch. I can already see that this show is going to be something special.
Hope to see you in the audience ☺