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Visual Complexity

from Thursday, September20th of the year2007.

Fall really is the best season to be in New York, especially if you’ve been here for even the smallest portion of the hottest summer days. I was lucky enough to be gone for all of July and then some in Iceland, where, it should be said, it doesn’t get all that hot. Now, in September, the air is getting cleaner and clearer, and it feels like you can think about food again, and walking, and working. Much better conditions. I have been busily running around between a whole bunch of different projects – namely, finishing this piece (Step Team) for the Chicago Symphony, and writing another solo viola piece for my dear Nadia. Meanwhile, rehearsals for the ballet (From Here On Out) are underway for seven hours a day.

The process of putting together this ballet is really amazing. Oh, and Benjamin got his website all set up and ready to receive you, so you should go holla at him. What’s interesting about balletic rehearsal technique is that it bears a strange resemblance to classical music rehearsal but with a completely different transmission method and time-scale. The formality, the rigor, the weird hierarchies &c. are all familiar to me. In classical music, though, there is a relationship between the players, the score, and the conductor, in a little triangle. Here, there is a score, but the score is treated really as a coded text to which the choreographer, ballet mistress, and ballet master have exclusive access. The rest of the information is transmitted through the bodies of the choreographer to the dancers. It’s a completely fascinating way of working that goes against the “brain-in-a-jar” relationship between composer and performer that often defines the way I interact with my music.

An Annotated Score

My neighborhood continues to be amazing:

“Receive a 24k gold pig embedded in crystal.”

Now, I want to post a little Herbert Howells, because this came up on my iTunes the other day and I realized what a genius and inspirational thing this little hymn is. This is one of the reasons I love the genre of early 20th century English choral music so much; there is this practicality and simplicity to the compositional process that, while referencing the romantic tradition harmonically and emotionally, has a lot more to do with the highly productive work ethic we associate with Bach. You don’t have time to futz around and wring your hands and have a crise de cÅ“ur because you have a choir waiting to get their sing on. It goes without saying, but this piece is a straightforward hymn in three verses. The third verse, however, features a descant typical of Howells ““ a long, buttery line floating over the blockish phrases. Anybody who has participated ““ no matter how minimally ““ in the Anglican choral tradition will know the visceral delight of singing a descant or having a descant sung over one. Notice how the descant only sets the first two and last two lines of the final verse. Very Satisfying.

[audio:01 Hymn to St. Cecelia.mp3]
Howells A Hymn to St. Cecelia

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know whose recording this is. Is it Queen’s College, Oxford? I know that it is not Edward Higginbottom and New College, Oxford. Is it my homegirl John Scott’s recording? I have a suspicion that it’s a totally random thing, but I want to know. Saint Clement’s Choir? Somebody call me! It sounds like there are women up in there. Also here are the words, by Ursula Vaughan Williams. Alarmingly, it would appear as if she is Still Alive, which would make her 96. Evidently, her autobiography is finally available! I really want to read it; I have to resolve my pissing contest with (I tried to send some out-of-print thing to a friend, they charged my account, but then tried to credit my account, but for whatever reason they Cannot because USA Credit Cards don’t have “start dates” and also “please calm down.”) Úrsúlusaga sounds crazily interesting as she was born in Malta and was married to Ralph Vaughan Williams and was called Ursula Vaughan Williams which already is three things I feel like I should have done by 26.

A Hymn to Saint Cecilia
Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing,
in words of youth and praises of the Spring,
walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
and sing as sunlight fills the waking day;
till angels, voyaging in upper air,
pause on a wing and gather the clear sound
into celestial joy, wound and unwound,
a silver chain, or golden as your hair.

Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth,
in words of music, and each word a truth;
marriage of heart and longings that aspire,
a bond of roses, and a ring of fire.
Your summertime grows short and fades away,
terror must gather to a martyr’s death;
but never tremble, the last indrawn breath
remembers music as an echo may.
Through the cold aftermath of centuries,

Cecilia’s music dances in the skies;
lend us a fragment of the immortal air,
that with your choiring angels we may share,
a word to light us thro’ time-fettered night,
water of fife, or rose of paradise,
so from the earth another song shall rise
to meet your own in heaven’s long delight.


  • This is one of my absolute favorite pieces of music in the world. My friend Kenric (who manages a great Holst website, by the way) introduced me to the whole 20th c. British choral world (just after you somehow passed up that opportunity at Tanglewood, I might add), and the Hymn was one of the centerpieces of that education. My harmonic and melodic language has never been the same since (thankfully).

    Anyway, are you 100% sure that’s not the Choir of New College Oxford? My ears are not the best ones, but the recording you posted really sounds like the recording on my iPod, which is that group. I think the timings check out, too, though that could be, you know, because they took the same tempo.

  • Well, it is the Year of the Golden Pig, y’all.

  • Thanks for the hymn, Nico – now I must go forth and find some Howells for my collection, I suspect! So beautiful. I totally agree with you re: the English choral tradition. I sort of grew up with it (well, the Australian version of the English choral tradition) and I find singing that music is just one of the most satisfying musical experiences possible. Really must pick a choir to join and go back to it… Loving your blog – so many superbly unexpected bits and pieces!

  • I knew Ursula a little. She was utterly fabulous and twinkled with fun. Full of stories about Ralph, who she clearly still adored, nearly 50 years after his death.

  • That recording is the St Clement’s Choir in Philadelphia from their album Hymns of Heaven and Earth.

  • This is my absolute favorite song. We performed it when I was in high school and I feel in love. I am so happy that I could find it.