by Joshua Roman
Damn, those girls can sing!
Photo credits: Rachel Clee
I recently had the honor of collaborating with an incredible group of young women. Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, asked me to join them for a concert of canons spanning a timeline from the 13th Century to this year, with a world premiere of “Our Voice”, which I wrote this year for the girls and my cello.
I had worked with the chorus and their music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe last year on Vireo, a filmed opera by Lisa, and had been impressed by their musicianship and enthusiastic approach to new music. Our musical interaction in that work was mostly tangential, but it was enough to get the wheels turning in my head about how the cello could fit in the group, or contrast in a powerful way. There was lots of room for experimentation, and not just in the song I wrote. A lot of the canons we performed could easily be complete on their own, without the cello butting in, so it was in some ways a leap of faith that I would be able to complement the girls without distracting from the point of each little piece. I have to say, it was really Lisa’s daring vision that convinced me to embark on this project, and in the end she was spot on.
Most of the program was filled with canons that stuck pretty close to the “rules” – so creativity was definitely necessary to keep things from becoming too formulaic. In “Duo Way Robin” (Anonymous, 13th Cent.), I experimented with starting the canon myself and then moving to drones and rhythmic percussion on the body of the cello. In our selections from Haydn’s “The Ten Commandments of the Arts and other secular canons”, I improvised connections between each short canon. After leading the girls into each canon by playing a predetermined cue, I would mix it up by doubling a voice, taking a voice myself, or sitting out for a while and adding appropriate harmony below. The Franck and the Brahms had violin or viola solos which were easy to transcribe and didn’t require additional arrangement.
“Our Voice”, the song I wrote for the girls, went through several forms before taking its final shape. In the end, I wrote the lyrics myself, something I had never done before. I found it quite difficult, and tried to imagine what I would want if I were in their shoes. I realized that the temptation to write something cherubic was front and center, and thought they must certainly be excited for characters to contrast with that, something with a little more bite. I ended up writing something I hoped would be empowering and also a bit defiant. “Listen to our voice”, and “we can be anything we choose” countered the tongue-in-cheek use of angelic harmonies on the word “angels”. One line, which I never felt I got exactly right in wording, but really felt like the right tone; “sure we’re angelic, but we’re so much more than that” was a transitional phrase that I heard repeated and sung in the hallways backstage. I was surprised and delighted to find it was actually some
of the girls’ favorite line, and to that end felt very gratified that perhaps some of my words might prove useful to the girls as they build their own identities.
That was both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward; going after the goal of writing more than just a nice-sounding piece. Empathy is an important skill in any music-writing, but setting myself up with something so specific was rather daunting. Especially given the task of writing lyrics for the first time, decided to only play slightly with vocal techniques and canon intricacy, leaving the structure through-composed and letting the voices flock or join together in other ways as obvious turning points in the piece. All I really wanted was to write something they would enjoy, and that would make them feel strong, capable, and proud of themselves. Once again, hearing other people take notes I had written – this time even words – and make real music out of them, moved me far beyond what I expected.
Thank you, girls, for showing me I can do this, too!