Reasons to learne to sing: Performance by the Florida State University Singers

April 12, 2013

Reasons to learne to sing is for 16-part chorus and was commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of The College Music Society and premiered by the Florida State University Singers under the direction of Kevin Fenton. Based on a list of eight reasons given by William Byrd to “perswade everyone to learne to sing,” the work incorporates melodic fragments from Guillaume de Machaut as well as a variety of sounds that Byrd was probably not intending (claps, stomps, whoops, and loud breathing in hocket) in a harmonic language that veers from medieval double leading-tone progressions to extended dominants resulting in a kind of ars nova jazz.

Reasons to learne to sing had a number of different starts, all of which can be seen in the final work. Initially, I was going to write something primarily focused on sound masses and textures using nonsense vocalizations and various other means of producing sound without instruments. At a later point, this approach became slightly more refined by using melodic fragments from the opening of Machaut's Le lay de la fonteinne as the basis for highly blurred (overlapped) imitative textures as a kind of deconstruction of the Machaut. Eventually, I settled on Williams Byrd’s text, a self-referential focus on the act of singing that dovetailed nicely with my earlier conceptions of the piece. While in many ways the work became more conventional, one can still hear traces of the earlier textural approach in the claps, stomps, whoops, hocketing breaths, and so forth, as well as the influence of the Machaut in particular melodic fragments and the prominence of the double leading-tone cadence throughout. There's still something of a reinterpretation of early music in the piece. In particular, not only are specific melodic fragments found throughout, but the ascending melodic minor scale (resulting from musica ficta) is treated as an acoustic scale. (For example, an F ascending melodic minor scale reinterpreted as a Bb Lydian dominant.) The result is a kind of ars-nova jazz in which pseudo medieval music is fused with extended dominants typical of jazz or early twentieth-century music.

My thanks to Kevin Fenton, who conducted the Florida State University Singers in the premiere, and Matthew Shaftel, for his help, encouragement, and advice throughout the commissioning and composing of the piece.

Recording Location: Florida State University

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