for mixed chorus (1996)
buy the music
20 April 1997
Cathedral Church of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, DC
American Repertory Singers / Leo Nestor
Original music based on a refrain excerpt from a 15th century English Carol.
Over dinner in September of 1996 at Vince and Eddie’s, a cozy little bistro on 68th Street here on the Upper West Side, Robert Schuneman — who was at the time my publisher at E.C. Schirmer, and who was then starting a record label called Arsis Audio — pitched to me the idea of creating a CD full of Christmas choral music sung by the American Repertory Singers, but with accompaniments done in studio as is normally the case with pop music. ‘Mind you,’ he said, putting on his Producer cap, ‘something very creative, but really different from the usual classical Christmas fare.’
It was only September, but I was already dreading the impending seasonal onslaught of looped, overlapping ‘Frosty the Snowmans’ and ‘Jingle Bell Rocks’ and he knew it. I quickly said yes, once we agreed that I would aim to take the listeners on a resolutely ‘non-commercial’ musical journey, one in which I frequently only alluded to the original centuries-old tunes already more than familiar to them.
Of the nine carols, three are necessarily treated as traditional linear narratives: Sussex Carol, a set of variations for the cello alone, and the two carols telling the Christmas Story itself: At Bethlehem Proper, for the men, and Once in Royal David’s City for the women.
Otherwise, the aesthetic goal was to create reinterpretations of these ‘overly-familiar’ carols that, as Brian Eno described ambient music, ‘accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular’ — that is, music that is ‘as ignorable as it is interesting.’
Robert Schuneman, in his liner notes for the recording that was released, wrote, ‘Some of the songs rely on our long-held memories for the words which are never sung, as in the first part of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, a long fugue vocalized on the ancient melody made from a mediaeval chant, a fugue so sustained as to welcome the flowering of words on ‘rejoice.’ Or, as in What Child is This, in which the insistently compiled clusters urgently ask the question ‘who?’ and get their answer in the short bursts of ‘This, this, is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing,’ but yet finishes still on the question ‘who?’ as if to acknowledge some human doubt. … And then there is God Rest Ye, Merry, Gentlemen, the tune of which is alluded to only by the cello, and that only briefly, before it slowly and lyrically melts into the yearning of O Come, O Come Emmanuel again. The program ends with a jubilant Hosanna in Excelsis, the words shouted by old and young alike at Christ’s entry into Jerusalem shortly before his death, and which the Church has traditionally appropriated for the next to last Sunday before Christmas to herald his entry into the world.’
The 'reinterpretations' were made during December of 1996 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and premiered, in recording sessions at the Cathedral Church of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, DC on 20 April 1997 by the American Repertory Singers, conducted by Music Director Leo Nestor, Robert LaRue, cellist.I hope that the contemplative and intimate musical space created by these carols in performance together fulfills the function of helping each of us to reconnect at this important time of year with the reason they were created and sung in the first place.
— Daron Hagen, 1997