Saturday, 30 April 2011

On acknowledgement

On Thursday I got an e-mail from someone. He was writing to tell me he'd found my piece Crux Fidelis on the Choral Public Domain Library a few months ago, and had used it in the liturgy for Good Friday at the church where he's organist. It went well and they intend to use it again next year.

It felt really wonderful to be thanked, and even just to know that my music is being used. I know others have used that piece this year, but they're all friends or acquaintances. Of course I'm glad they like it and use it, but in my head it feels like strangers liking my music enough to use it is another level. One of the difficulties of putting my work online is that I never really know whether it is getting used. Oh, SoundCloud has some stats for listens and downloads, but once a track has been downloaded I have no idea how often it's played. CPDL doesn't seem to offer any stats, but even if they did, there's a long way between downloading a piece of music and having a choir sing it!

If there were such a thing, I'd be tempted to use a Creative Commons license where people can do what they like with my music as long as they tell me, somehow. As things currently stand I'm reliant on etiquette.

Perhaps, though, it's just as well that such a license doesn't exist. Having to let the creator know what's happening might be enough to put people off using the work, after all, and if it comes to a choice between the music being heard and my hearing about it, I think I'd choose the former.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A creative response to copyrighted lyrics...

Eric Whitacre wrote this music to fit the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. Rather stupidly, Robert Frost's estate told him that he couldn't use it until it becomes public domain in 2038.

So he asked Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem to fit, using the same meter and some of the same words... this is the result:

The whole virtual choir thing is pretty darn awesome, too.

(Hat tip to @elmyra who brought the post on BoingBoing to my attention.)

Ever onwards...

Miss Music Nerd

This badge from Miss Music Nerd pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. Alleluia, I survived! Like her, I'm also left with a rather large "to do after Holy Week" list that needs tackling. I think mine starts with tidying up the music room, I'm sure it had a floor once. I did take Easter Monday as a day to be lazy at home, and it felt decidedly odd not to be thinking of everything in terms of the next church service.

I couldn't have managed it without the choir, though. They were stellar in putting up with rehearsals before every service and with my relative unfamiliarity with the pattern of Holy Week at St Andrew's, and with keeping the practical choir stuff under control so I didn't have to play herd-the-choristers alongside playing the organ. Really they deserve this badge as much as I do.

Instead, they got glittery cupcakes. Hopefully that will do!

Friday, 22 April 2011

In the great congregation I will praise...

Though my diocesan cathedral in Chelmsford is a bit of a trek for me, I'm privileged in London to be within easy travel distance of both St Paul's Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.
Yesterday, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to attend a service that I couldn't mess up by playing the organ in the wrong place, I attended the Chrism Mass (actually called "The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils" on the order of service) at Southwark Cathedral. In the Church of England, this is the service at which Chrism oils are blessed and at which clergy renew their ordination vows. It was a good service, and I'm glad that I went. The Mass setting by Langlais was perhaps a tad inaccessible, but if you can't sing Latin and some crunchy harmonies when you've got several hundred clergy who all know what the words mean, when can you sing them? Certainly there were bowed heads when the Sanctus came around, so I'm sure the vast majority knew what was going on.

Accessibility was also my concern with the Psalm. The choir sang their verses of Psalm 23 beautifully enough that, at first, I wondered whether my previous disdain for responsorial psalmody might be unjustified. I don't know whose setting it was; it isn't the one in the only book of responsorial psalmody I own, and by the time I've looked it up anywhere else I'll probably have forgotten it. It was simple, the text was clear, and when the choir broke into four-part harmony for the last four lines it was simply sublime; I think it was some of the best choral singing I heard during the service.

Why, then, interrupt this with a congregational response? The response itself was interesting enough, but I struggled to remember it correctly after hearing it twice and singing it once. Perhaps I'm just getting too dependent on having dots in front of me! But switching from unmetered chant to a metrical response without some sort of indication of tempo is hard in a small congregation and even harder in a large one. I felt like an unwieldy, oversized ox in a specialist china shop for dolls. I value congregational participation in the psalms, but given the nature of most of the congregation -- ordained clergy and the odd "church geek" layperson such as myself -- I think that just the chant without any congregational singing might well have been participatory enough. It would have been better had the response had some sort of metrical introduction, but even that might not be heard clearly in an echo-y cathedral with an organ. I was too far away to see the musical director well enough to follow any directions given to the choir.

(The psalm was also labeled as Psalm 133 -- a wonderful psalm to use at a Chrism Mass, given the focus on unity and the imagery of oil -- but the psalm they sang was definitely Psalm 23. I can only attribute this to a clerical error!)

By contrast, I absolutely loved the hymnody; there is something about singing hymns with several hundred other people singing their hearts out that is just too good for words. I was disappointed we didn't make it to the end of "Lift high the cross" (which I've sung so seldom I didn't actually remember the tune) and none of the hymns were real favourites of mine, but there was none of the lumbering uncertainty I felt during the psalm. Ordinarily I prefer good metrical hymnody in full parish churches to cathedrals, for some of the same acoustic, aesthetic reasons I didn't like the psalm response: in a big echo-y space, chances are you've got to go slowly enough to spoil the line, and if the place isn't absolutely rammed (and even sometimes when it is) people tend to sing quietly under their breath so that the general effect is that of an indecisive jellyfish; I usually end up listening carefully for the organ and choir and trying to stick with them while people around me mumble into their hymn books, and I really struggle if there's a tune I don't know. But in this instance everyone was singing, the tempo was on the whole right for the space without being too slow to get through a line in one breath, and it was all quite wonderful. I really enjoyed being able to sing without feeling like I had to take the lead for twelve people sitting near me who had no idea what the tune was, and being able to let my voice follow others when I didn't know the notes. Maybe this is what hymns were like, or could be like, when there was more general enthusiasm about singing. Maybe this is what hymns can still be like if people can be convinced to sing! It was one of the best experiences of congregational singing I've had for a long time.

IMSLP is back

Just a brief update on yesterday's situation with IMSLP -- the site is back!

It looks like the MPA contacted GoDaddy to request that the domain name be reinstated. Their offer to work with IMSLP to ensure all relevant scores meet relevant copyright legislation seems like a bit of a joke to me, though: clearly they know much less about copyright than the good folks at IMSLP. I don't see much sign of an actual apology, either, though I've only had time to skim things this morning so I may well have missed it.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

IMSLP under attack on bogus legal grounds

I'm a big fan of the International Music Score Library Project, also known as the Petrucci Music Library.

It seems the Music Publishers Association, a UK organisation with industry links to EMI, PRS and many of the other usual suspects, is being quite problematic for them.

A short extract from their forums:

The MPA, without notifying us, sent to our domain registrar GoDaddy a bogus DMCA takedown notice. GoDaddy took the entire IMSLP.ORG domain down. IMSLP has filed a DMCA counter notice with GoDaddy, however, the DMCA seems to require the registrar to wait no less than 10 days before restoring service. This means that IMSLP is inaccessible from IMSLP.ORG during this period of time. We will be working to restore service as soon as possible.

What is the MPA complaining about? Rachmaninoff's Bells, which is public domain both in Canada and the USA:,_Op.35_%28Rachmaninoff,_Sergei%29
MPA's claim is entirely bogus.

Further legal clarification is available here on the IMSLP forums.

Basically I think this looks like bullying, plain and simple. It's scandalous that such a valuable resource should be taken offline because "traditional" music publishing companies have their knickers in a twist over something that isn't even illegal.

Workaround: You can still reach the site by using either or Note, however, that some links on the site that refer to IMSLP.ORG may be broken; you will have to manually replace IMSLP.ORG with one of the two above domain names manually in the URL bar.

Anyone who is interested in suing or helping to sue the MPA under DMCA section 512(f) (misrepresentations) please contact imslproject Note that the feldmahler address is likewise offline.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Ruht wohl

Last night I went to hear Bach's St John Passion at St Paul's Cathedral.

The cathedral is not the best acoustic environment for it, to be honest: there's a very long echo and the sound just gets incredibly muddy. Bach is better, I think, with some clarity.

The Passion was sung in English. As a rule I tend to prefer singing in the original language and as an audience member I think I feel the same, though I can see the point of using English given the context. I'm not sure about the translation, either, though. The first part of the clip embedded above was sung as follows:

"Sleep well, and rest in God's safekeeping,
who makes an end of all our weeping.
Sleep well, and on his breast sleep well.

The grave, that was prepared for thee,
from all our sorrows sets us free,
and points the way to Heaven,
and shuts the gates of Hell."

The German is:
"Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu."

and another translation into English is this:
"Rest well, ye holy bones and members,
Which I henceforth shall never weep for,
Rest well and bring me, too, to rest!
The tomb which for you is assigned,
And henceforth no distress will hold,
Doth open heav'n to me and shut the gates of hell. "

I definitely like "rest" as being closer to "ruht" than "sleep" is, and "rest in God's safekeeping" seems to basically be made up. But the second translation is pretty awkward as English verse goes. I've not studied German so I can't nitpick too much, and I'm a poor translator in any case, but I would like something faithful both to the meaning of the words and the metrical form.

Despite these imperfections I was thoroughly glad I went. This movement echoed in my head as I cycled home, and will probably stay with me the rest of the week.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Words, words!

When I write music, I struggle with the words. As a child I was a decent poet, I'm told, but at some point I lost the habit of writing poetry in a notebook in spare moments. I think it may have been around the time I took up playing the horn and got a paper route and somehow seemed to always be out at one rehearsal or another! These days, most of the words I write are typed directly onto a screen and unpoetic at best.

But I do seem to compose better with words than without. So, I try to find others' words that say what I want to say, words that inspire or words that I think will be right for the context for which I'm writing. Invariably, I run into trouble with this. Anything that's still under copyright is a massive pain; sometimes it's possible to contact the author and ask for permission but often attempts to do so are simply ignored, and in some cases it's hard to find out who to get in touch with in the first place. As I often struggle to find the right words in the first place (it took me several months to choose the words for Christ Has No Body Now on Earth but Ours, and even then I wasn't sure until I sat down to write; In Commendation of Music was similarly fraught, though for very different reasons), the bother with copyright is a significant hurdle.

Lately I have been enjoying Thomas Thurman's poetry. Eventually I summoned up the courage to ask, since Thomas seems a churchy type, whether there might be any psalm paraphrases I could use. I was pleased that there are two of them, and possibly more to come! One of those is more Christianized than I'd be happy to use as a psalm in liturgy (more on that in another post), but would definitely stand well as a hymn on its own; perhaps it was that comment which prompted Thomas to point me at this hymn text, which can't be used with the tune it was written for due to copyright issues (see? it isn't just me that has trouble with this stuff!)... Thomas also writes software and so is familiar with and happy about Creative Commons and other open licenses.

It's not exactly a time of year when I ought to be taking on new projects, but the other Friday I had a long-ish train journey to a rehearsal (Zone 5, south of the river, there's no way to do it without at least two changes and as I wasn't cycling to London Bridge it was three this time). So, I printed out the words, chucked some manuscript paper in my bag and decided to see what I could make of it. It was a delightful tune to set to music: all the word stresses line up beautifully from verse to verse, and though the meter is somewhat non-standard I do now have a tune I'm reasonably happy with. As, for once, I'm not working to a deadline, I'm leaving it in a drawer for a month before doing some editing, so you don't get to see it yet. But I'm pleased with it so far, and really happy to have access to some newer words which I'm allowed to put to music!

Monday, 18 April 2011

In Commendation of Music

Somehow, I neglected to blog about this at the time... last year I wanted to make a birthday present for Stella, who keeps everything ticking over smoothly at Quire.

So of course I wrote a piece of music. The text is by one William Strode, and I chose it (after the usual laboured searching) because it was a fairly simple metrical poem which I could set in the style of an 18th-century glee. PDF file here and the usual too-slow MIDI. As always it's released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.

WHEN whispering strains do softly steal
With creeping passion through the heart
And when at every touch we feel
Our pulses beat and bear a part;
When threads can make
A heartstring shake
Can scarce deny
The soul consists of harmony.

When unto heavenly joy we feign
Whate’er the soul affecteth most,
Which only thus we can explain
By music of the wingàed host,
Whose lays we think
Make stars to wink,
Can scarce deny
Our souls consist of harmony.

O lull me, lull me, charming air,
My senses rock with wonder sweet;
Like snow on wool thy fallings are,
Soft, like a spirit’s, are thy feet:
Grief who need fear
That hath an ear?
Down let him lie
And slumbring die,
And change his soul for harmony.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Psalm 31 vv 9-16 to Aylesbury

This is the last of the metrical Psalms for this Lent. On Maundy Thursday we'll be singing Psalm 22, right enough, but it will be a chanted version using the Common Worship text. The plan is to keep that very simple: two notes only, a minor third apart.

I wanted to use the opportunity to teach the choir (and expose the congregation) to another good tune that's in the New English Hymnal but which we don't seem to sing very much. It is perhaps a bit dreary for the repeated insistence of the response, "That thou, my God, art good and just, my soul with comfort knows," but the repeated request to see God's mercy fits it very well. Again, I wanted something relatively easy -- there's an awful lot going on already on Psalm Sunday, what with processions to the forest, palm crosses and so on.

I chose Brady and Tate's "New Version" for this psalm portion not because I especially liked the text, but because the Scottish Psalter and Sternhold and Hopkins' "Old Version" both seemed... well, awkward.

I'm sure that this verse from the Scottish Psalter:

When they me saw they from me fled.
Ev'n so I am forgot,
As men are out of mind when dead:
I'm like a broken pot.

would have some of my younger choristers in fits of giggles. The Old Version is only slightly better:

As men once dead are out of mind,
so am I now forgot;

As little use of me they find
as of a broken pot.

But still, on the whole, I thought it would be better to stick with the "shattered vessel" language, even if the rhyming is a bit strained:

Forsook by all am I,
as dead and out of mind;
And like a shattered vessel lie,
whose parts can ne'er be joined.

In any case, here is the response:

For a more complete picture there is a PDF file here.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Lord Bless Thee

I wrote this for the King James Trust 2011 composition competition. I had intended to enter both categories but failed to get my act together in time, so this was thrown together rather hastily. However, I do like it for what it is: short, sweet, simple. It should work well with either organ or piano. If you had a flute or another instrument, it would lend itself to a descant based on the keyboard part or, for a more advanced player, a skilled music director could write a more complex descant.

The MIDI robots play this just a bit too slowly, I think, but there is a MIDI file here and a PDF file here. As usual I've used a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

London to Oxford on a Pashley

This year for my birthday I got a very shiny bicycle. This was in no small part due to someone else being positive about cycling in London without turning into a fluorescent Lycra-clad speed demon or getting squished; not only was she enthusiastic about cycling, but she recommended a shop where I might be able to find a bicycle that fit me properly.

Now this lovely lady is planning on cycling from London to Oxford on a Pashley Princess Sovereign to raise money for Help the Hospices.

I'm not joining her, though I might just try something similar another year when I've improved at this "cycling up hills" thing. She's nearly at her fundraising target so do help out if you're so inclined.

Organ diagnostic chart

We had our organ tuned earlier this week, preparing for Lent. Hooray! I have all the notes back on the Tromba stop! I can use the Great Stopped Diapason when playing in flat keys! I approve of this. Some problems are going to wait until there's time for a longer visit, and then there are the bellows which need repairs -- a huge and expensive job which we don't yet have sufficient funding to undertake.

Most organs I've visited seem to have a sort of organ log book where the organist can write down faults and the tuner can write little notes of the temperature and humidity (which always seem to me to be chiding somehow, though I'm sure they aren't meant to sound that way). Invariably there will be scribbles along the lines of "F# below middle C not right" or similar, or as in my case the organist will try and remember to make a note of problems but then completely forget to write them down in the little book!

During the summer I couldn't find the book at all so I made this chart. It's a very simple affair: date, place and manual, then a table with a column for each key (up to 61) and a row for each stop (up to 11). I've shaded the black notes so it's a bit easier to keep your place when filling it in, and left plenty of space underneath the chart for writing down further observations. I found myself using different symbols for different problems and extrapolating below the chart.

This was just a quick sort-the-easy-stuff tuning, and so I didn't actually fill out these sheets, but for the Really Big Tuning that happens each summer they're really valuable. It does take a while to sit down and play every note of every stop but it's well worth it in terms of letting the organ tuner know exactly which notes are problematic.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Psalm 130 to Cheshire

This past Sunday -- Passion Sunday -- was not an All-Age Service, or anything else requiring exceptional liturgy, and so it was back to metrical psalms with a congregational response.

I was pleased with this setting of Psalm 130. The tune I chose is one that we'll be using on Palm Sunday and which is not terribly well known in the congregation, so sneaking it in as the psalm is one way of getting people used to it. I'm also very fond of the harmony. That said, the dotted rhythms mean it does need to be taken quite slowly in order that the words don't get swallowed up.

I did stumble at first over the beginning of the last stanza:

"And plenteous redemption
is ever found with him."

At first glance this doesn't seem to have the right number of syllables. There should be eight in the first line and six in the second, right? But I know from singing other music that pronunciation has changed; the word "redemption", which most people now pronounce with three syllables, would have had four. The choir were happier to sing it with four syllables than change the rhythm of the music to make it fit, so that's what we did.

Here's the response, taken as usual from the last line of the melody:

And if you want the whole thing, you can download a .pdf file. I played the verse first, then the choir sang the response once through, then the congregation sang it. This seems to work well.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Here we go...

There's this Sunday, and then another "normal" week, and then it's Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday will see four services in four days -- not excessive, by any means, but bear in mind I am used to just four or five services per month, with the occasional funeral thrown in.

Suddenly there doesn't seem to be nearly enough time, both in terms of learning to play the music myself and in rehearsal time for the choir. Suddenly, using a new Mass setting for Eastertide doesn't seem like such a great idea. The parish has been using Shephard's "Addington" setting since <strike>Moses parted the Red Sea</strike> long before I got there, which is really too long to use the same piece of music. I'm wondering whether I really can learn the voluntaries in time or whether there's something else, something easier, I can pull out instead. I'm abandoning thoughts of harmonic changes for last verses and thinking that I may need to keep the Easter bonnet simple this year. And I'm trying to keep hold of a Lenten quietness, the still solemnity of doing less and being more, rather than allowing Lent to become just another busy period at work.

So of course, in the midst of all this, it's also time to choose hymns for May!