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Classical 101

New Works For Choir and Guitar Create A Distinctive Sound World

photo of Conspirare ensemble photo credit - James Goulden.jpg
James Goulden
Conspirare choral ensemble

Voices past and present resound in a recording of new works for choir and guitar ensemble.

The Singing Guitar features new works by four acclaimed contemporary composers – Nico Muhly, Reena Esmail, Kile Smith and Craig Hella Johnson – performed by the Austin-based choral ensemble Conspirare, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the Texas Guitar Quartet, the Austin Guitar Quartet and cellist Douglas Harvey. It was released last week by Delos.

This recording, with the evocative sonority that these ensembles create when combined, was the brainchild of Craig Hella Johnson, founding artistic director of Conspirare.

“My vision for this, really, was that someone could sit in a comfortable chair – I even envision a beanbag chair – and they might have a beautiful stereo system surrounding them, and just to be able to be … enveloped in this sound world,” said Johnson, in our recent interview.

Equally evocative are the diverse texts that inspired the works. Indian-American composer Reena Esmail’s When the Guitar is based on a poem by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The poem explores forgiveness as ultimate freedom and joy, and Esmail’s setting is an atmospheric blend of Western classical sounds and vocal stylings influenced by Hindustani music.

Album Cover for The Singing Guitar

Nico Muhly’s How Little You Are sets the words of two 19th-century American pioneer women. The work brings Elinore Pruitt Stewart and Mary Alma Blankenship into dialogue on subjects as mundane as making coffee and as transcendent as the grandeur of the open prairie.

“Nico refers to his piece as a meditation, and it feels like that,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t kind of come at you with strobe lights and all guns blazing. It’s a very gentle approach, and so I think it needs space and time to be really felt and heard.”

Kile Smith’s The Dawn’s Early Light draws on selections from Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’ Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, believed to be the first autobiography by a Native American woman. The text recounts some of the tragic events between the Paiute people and European settlers, and the emotional epicenter of Smith’s work manifests in a poignant musical reworking of The Star-Spangled Banner.

The final work on the recording, Craig Hella Johnson’s The Song That I Came to Sing, sets a poem by the Indian poet and mystic Rabindranath Tagore. The poem pays tribute to life’s perpetual incompleteness, and Johnson’s musical setting is both pensive and wondrous.

“As we live, our lives remain unsung to some degree,” Johnson said, “and we continue to let that yearning move us forward.”

The Singing Guitar was released June 18 on the Delos label.

Transcript of Interview

I’m Jennifer Hambrick, midday host of WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, in Columbus. I’, speaking with Craig Hella Johnson, founding artistic director of the choral ensemble Conspirare, about their recording The Singing Guitar.

Jennifer Hambrick: Singing Guitar features works by Nico Muhly, Reena Esmail, and Kile Smith for guitar quartets and chorus. This is an unusual instrumentation What gave you the idea for it?

Craig Hella Johnson: We were doing a co-presentation with a group called Texas Performing Arts here in Austin, it’s the university of Texas presenting series, their performance series, and another wonderful group here in town called Austin Classical Guitar. And I sat with them and I just pitched the idea of what if we played with the idea of poly-ensembles. Sort of like we have the wonderful polychoral works from St. Mark’s in Venice, you know, the Gabrieli. And I love that interplay. And I wondered if maybe there could be some kind of imaginative play we might do with groups of guitars and groups of singers. So it began with that idea – a couple of guitar choirs, a couple of singing choirs. And I was very much interested in this texture play. So anyway, that’s where it started. And then when we got into conversations with Nico [Muhly], he was intrigued by that. And we had conversations – many conversations – that led to three guitar quartets and single choir. And so that’s how that all got started, with the idea that we would play off of some of these, back-and-forth textural kinds of sounds and the palette that that could create was really interesting to us. And then of course the guitar - in so many traditions and cultures, a single guitar and a single voice is a very common, wonderful pairing. And so this just kind of expanded that. So there was just this idea we had of wanting to really play more with guitar and really add something to the repertoire. I hadn’t seen anything like this, and we were just having fun, really.

JH: There’s something about the resonance of all these guitars and all of these voices in a nice hall that sort of creates a unique kind of space, it seems. I’ve not heard anything quite like it.

CHJ: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Well, you know, Jennifer, my real initial interest for this piece, too – even before we performed it, I had a sense that I would love for this to be a piece that a person can experience in a recorded format. So I’m so happy we finally did get to do the recording. My vision for this, really, was that someone could sit in a comfortable chair. I mean, I even envision a beanbag chair, and they might have a beautiful stereo system surrounding them. And just to be able to be, as you suggested, enveloped in this sound, this sound world. I have a strong interest in seeing, also, if we may find a collaborative partner, an artist, who could create an exhibition, kind of a performance exhibition for this that we could have traveling to museums and galleries. Nico even refers to his piece as a meditation, and it feels like that. It’s a long arc this piece takes. And at first hearing – I mean, I think one needs time with this piece to really begin to encounter it. It doesn’t kind of come at you with strobe lights and all guns blazing. It’s a very gentle approach, and so I think it needs space and time to be really felt and heard.

JH: Was it part of your intention from the beginning of this project to showcase the stories of women, or was that just kind of a happy coincidence?

CHJ: We began with a very big, open conversation. But as Nico began to explore texts, and he knew we were looking for the guitar aspect for sure, but also here we are in the southwest, he began to come across these texts by the pioneer women. And that’s when it began to really emerge as their voices wanting to be expressed. And it was after that where we did that premiere where I wanted the rest of this project to really hold a place very prominently for women’s voices. And so it became a really important part to all of us of what this project meant to us.

JH: Tell us about the works on the recording.

CHJ: How Little You Are was the first project, and this is six movements set to texts of two 19th-century pioneer women, one from Texas, one from Wyoming. This is for a choir of voices and three guitar quartets and a soprano soloist. The texts run a broad spectrum here, in terms of the meaning and consideration. As I mentioned, Nico often refers to this piece as a meditation, kind of a singing meditation. And it meditates on aspects of that pioneering life, particularly for these women, who were clearly head of the household. During the second movement is a very beautiful reflection upon one of the women writing about losing a child, and so infant mortality and infant death, and when the father creates the casket. There’s an Interlude movement which is all about springtime and one can feel the freshness of spring. The final movement really gives one a sense of vast spaces, long distances from one human soul to the next and sort of the beauty of that, also the longing and the sort of loneliness of that. So it’s a gorgeous set of very ordinary texts. In several of them they’re talking about making breakfast and having coffee. So very ordinary, almost out-of-a-journal, texts.

The Dawn’s Early Light was a commission. The composer’s Kile Smith, the Philadelphia-based composer. This whole recording has at its core women’s voices, so the initial pioneer women in Nico’s piece, and for Kile’s piece I asked if we could find together a text that might represent a different tradition, a different perspective. Since these pioneer women had had their say in the large work of Nico’s, I had asked Kile particularly if we could find a text by a Native American woman. So he discovered these texts. Sarah Winnemucca, who as we understand it, was the first Native American woman to be published in English. And so he took a story of hers – and he actually also curated his text from a large body of her writings – and put together this multimovement work. This work is for only one guitar quartet and choir, and this features the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It’s very timely, also, in terms of what it speaks to. At the center of this piece is also a brand-new composition which is set to the words of The Star-Spangled Banner. Once someone hears the larger work, they’ll understand what its place is in that context.

The composer Reena Esmail is a wonderful composer who’s becoming more known every month that goes by. She’s incredibly gifted and an important voice. She had a gorgeous piece called When The violin, and this is set to a text by the Persian mystic Hafiz. And she had an inspired idea to see if this could possibly work for guitar quartet. So this piece came forward. It’s a beautiful work. She uses elements of Hindustani chant in some of the solo vocal lines, and the text speaks about forgiveness in a very beautiful way and speaks of the guitar that starts singing. When the heart learns to forgive, the heart starts singing and the guitar begins singing. And that’s where our title for this project, The Singing Guitar, came (from).

And the final piece on this program, on this project, was a piece that I composed, and this is set to the text of Rabindranath Tagore, the wonderful Bengali poet and philosopher and writer, in an English translation of his. And this text speaks about the soul’s yearning to be fulfilled, to be completed. The text is “The song that I came to sing has not yet been fully sung.” And so there was a sense of the unmet, the yearned for. We decided to put it as the coda, as the song, as we live our lives, remains unsung to some degree, and we continue to let that yearning move us forward.

JH: We’ve been talking about Craig Hella Johnson’s recording The Singing Guitar, with the choral ensemble Conspirare and also featuring performances by the Los Angeles, Texas and Austin Guitar quartets and cellist Douglas Harvey. I’m Jennifer Hambrick with WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, in Columbus.