Our popular Candlelight Concert will be held on December 21. Presented by Chorale (the high school choirs), this performance is a beloved tradition full of carols, readings and music of the season. Joining Chorale this year is our 25th Anniversary Alumni Choir…we couldn’t be more excited to share the stage with so many of our singers over the years! Alums are encouraged to join in the singing!
Featured on this week’s blog is our own Kyle Haugen, Director of the TYC Men’s Choir and Co-Director of Chorale. He composed two pieces that will be featured on our Candlelight Concert. Get your tickets for the Candlelight Concert here.
TYC: How did this collaborative project with TYC begin? Where did the text for the piece come from, and how did you choose it?
KH: TYC often programs repertoire in foreign languages. A few years back, one of the Men’s Choir members asked, “Mr. Haugen, can we sing something in Polish?” Polish isn’t a language students typically study, and the question was out of left field so I thought maybe he was joking with me. But I soon realized he really thought it would be interesting and fun to sing something in Polish. I instantly thought of the Polish carol “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and the following December we performed my arrangement for 4-part men and piano. Last summer I revised the choral parts for mixed choir, and that’s the version that the Chorale is premiering this December.
KH: I often improvise at the piano to develop a countermelody or to explore the thematic material of an existing melody. I also like writing in different styles, from pop music to Baroque. Once I know the vocabulary I intend to use, I can begin to improvise at the piano and hear almost instantly what is going to work or what is out of bounds. Sometimes pieces take a long time to gel even if I have the general sense of vocabulary — one piece of original music I wrote a couple of years ago needed to lay fallow for almost a year before I could come back with fresh eyes and ears to finish it; I wasn’t being a conduit for the music and needed to take some time away from it to get myself “outside” of the piece again. In the case of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” both the text and melody were already existing. I posed a question to myself: “What if Frédéric Chopin had written a piece based on ‘Infant Holy, Infant Lowly?'” Not that I think I’m in the same caliber as Chopin, mind you! But I wanted to explore how Chopin’s musical idiom might marry with the carol, since Chopin was Polish and “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is probably the most famous Polish carol in the English-speaking world. I wrote a countermelody for the accompaniment reminiscent of the main theme from Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude for piano, and applied some other aspects of his approach to that piece, such as the use of a pedal tone. The result sounds something like a choral arrangement of a nineteenth-century composer’s treatment of a folk song. Amy Boers, our accompanist, is simply outstanding and has really made the piano part come to life, which really helps ground it in Chopin’s world.
In general, composing for choir or voice must begin with the text. I have written several original melodies on poems or hymns and the text always dictates the shape of the line. The audience must understand the text and have an intuitive sense of the music’s relationship to the text or else it simply doesn’t work as vocal or choral music (unless you’re writing something avant-garde and communicating the text is not really part of your purpose). For instrumental music, there is, in a sense, more compositional freedom; but the ironic thing is that constraints often free the creative process. For “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” once I decided on the self-imposed constraint of writing Chopinesque, if you will, I could always tell when something was out of place or needed revision because Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude gave me the vocabulary I needed to use. I was then free to tell the story how I wished, within the framework of that vocabulary. It’s not the same as copying or “parroting” Chopin — it’s more like writing historical fiction, or perhaps akin to penning a Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. We all know that Holmes expressions like “indubitably” but would never exclaim, “Exactamundo!” Once you know the character’s vocabulary you can write for the character. The same concept applied to “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” I knew Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude for piano since performing it for a competition when I was in eighth grade, so that existing piece of historical music by a famous Polish composer gave me the vocabulary to apply in a new way to the famous Polish carol “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.”