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Friday, November 04, 2005

Lux Aeterna

For those musically inclined persons out there, I wanted to tell you about this piece we are doing in choir for All Saints Sunday this weekend. It's Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna and it's just... Wow. It's different than anything else I've ever sung before.

Now, my musical vocabulary is limited at best, so I will try to explain this the only way I know how. You know how when you hear a piece by Bach, or Mozart, you kind of know where they're going with it? You can, to some tiny extent, predict the way the chords will progress and how the piece will be structured and so on and so forth. It makes musical sense because we have heard that kind of music so often before.

Lauridsen's work is totally the opposite. He uses harmonies that just don't make any sense. Notes that shouldn't go together. Chords that aren't so much chords as random conglomerations of notes. And yet somehow it works. Again, I haven't got the musical vocabulary to tell you why it works, but it does. It's a very modern piece. Not a-tonal (is that the term I want?) but definitely not traditional or classical either.

The Latin is different too. With nine out of ten pieces we sing, the liturgical Latin is exactly the same. Agnus Dei, requiem aeternum, etc. With this, the guy apparently went in and wrote all these lyrics and then translated them into Latin, so it's like we're not only sight reading the notes, but the Latin as well. And I never took Latin. There's one line that says something about "in laboris refrigarium" which we unanimously decided must either be about refrigerator repairmen or the fact that the choir was laboring away and the air conditioning was turned on too high. One or the other.

This makes it an incredibly challenging piece to sing. David, our director, commented that it just isn't performed all that often. It was debuted here in LA several years ago, I take it, to very good reviews, but it's just so different and difficult that most choirs don't even attempt it.

I feel that this might be a good time to mention that we are a church choir of twelve. Thirteen on a good day. None of us are professional musicians. We have only five men in the choir: two first tenors, one second tenor, one baritone, and one bass. Our director sings bass while he conducts and he invites a friend of his to sing baritone when we do Big Important pieces like this.

Suffice to say, this would be a challenging piece for a full choir of professionally trained musicians. Parts of it are near to impossible for us.

And yet... We're making remarkable headway. I'm really terribly proud of us. But we really are an excellent group. We've been told many times, most notably by the professional musicians David brings in to play with us for big events, that people are astounded at the quality and quantity of sound we produce with such a small group. Frankly, so am I.

We've also been debating whether or not Lauridsen hates basses as we work on this song. Both the bass and the alto parts (not to mention the tenor and soprano parts) are painfully high. There has been much laughter and jokes about thongs in the bass section. In addition, sometimes the lines are just so incredibly random they lose any sort of musicality when taken separately from the rest of the choir and the accompaniment. Last night we, the sopranos, were trying to learn this section that jumped from a high c, down an octave, up to a high d (that's a ninth for anyone keeping track) and back down an octave again before moving on. Parts of it are almost like singing a vocalese!

And yet, when you get it, when all the parts come together and it actually works, David cuts us off and there's this collective feeling of oh. That's what it was supposed to sound like, eh? Well that's actually quite nice.

Who knew?

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