04.15.2009

The piece that I introduced to our friend last weekend is a favorite of mine. It’s a much smaller piece, in length and in scope, than Pärt’s Credo, but it’s a brilliant concept.

I was first exposed to the music of the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (born 1915) at Cal State Fullerton; in the University Singers choir, we sang an a cappella piece of his called Be Not Afraid. After a powerful chordal introduction, the bottom three parts (alto, tenor and bass) settled into an almost pop-music-like “groove,” a repeating pattern of chords with a dynamic rhythm, while the sopranos sang the melody over the top of it. I thought that was really cool, so I resolved to research the composer a little more. My choir director gave me another piece of his called O Crux, which is another terrific piece that I should post about sometime. And for Christmas that year, after searching far and wide for it, my mother got me the CD Nystedt: Sacred Choral Music, which includes recordings of both O Crux and the piece at hand: Immortal Bach.

Immortal Bach (1988) is modeled on Bach’s chorale “Komm, süsser Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”), and is a deconstruction of the piece for a cappella choir. The choir begins by singing the chorale through as it was written (or at least harmonized) by Bach–the original version, consisting of three phrases, each of which have a cadence, or a progression leading to a particular chord, at the end. (The piece is in C minor; the first phrase ends on an E-flat major chord [III], the second on a G major chord [V], and the last, of course, on C minor [i].) Then, the choir sings through each of the three phrases again. But this time, each part moves at a different slow pace through the phrase, so that all of the parts move independently of the others. The result is exquisite, as the parts combine in different ways, the dissonances of the piece are extended and new sonorities are created. At the end of each phrase, all the parts come to rest on the final chord (eventually), there is a pause, and the next phrase begins. It’s incredibly simple, but incredibly beautiful as well.

I’ve seen two performances of the piece, both of which included a unique element. The first (by the John Alexander Singers of the Pacific Chorale) was performed in “surround sound,” with the 24 singers arranged around the audience. I believe this is how the score dictates that it should be performed (I tried for a long time to find a copy of the score viewable online, because I’d like to see what it looks like, but my efforts were to no avail). It was a pretty cool effect, but I felt like I couldn’t hear every part as well as I would have liked to. The second performance (by the Chamber Singers of Cal State Fullerton), directed by the same conductor who introduced me to Nystedt (Dr. Robert Istad), used motions to represent visually what was happening in the music. Each of the phrases had a corresponding motion (raising the arms, etc.) that each member of the choir acted out through the course of the phrase, so that at first all of the motions were done in sync. But in the subsequent phrases, each singer moved through the motion at the same rate they moved through the phrase, so you could see how all of the singers were at a different point in the music; but they all came together to the same position as they came together on the chord at the end of each phrase. It was a clever idea, and I enjoyed that performance a great deal.

It may sound cool when I describe it, but of course you really just have to listen to it. Click on the video below to hear a recording by the group Ensemble 96, conducted by Øystein Fevang. Gorgeous.

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  1. Gravatar

    Desha on 04.15.2009

    Absolutely gorgeous.

    What a great way to start my day – in my jammies and fuzzy slippers, coffee in hand, quiet morning, close my eyes, and beautiful music.

    Thanks, AJ!

    If you ever do get a-hold of a copy of the score, let me know.

  2. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 04.15.2009

    Hi Desha,
    You start your day off reading TLB? What an honor!

    Glad you enjoyed the piece–I’ll let you know if I can get a copy of the score.

    AJ Harbison

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