Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows

The waves were magnificent and the sun was flashing through dark clouds. I had just sprung, alive, from wild, grey green water after an icy January swim. January is not the coldest month to swim in the Irish sea, but it can be the most beautiful, and this day was perfect. One of my fellow swimmers who had also just emerged from the water turned to me and said “I can see now where you get the inspiration for your music – how couldn’t you be inspired by this?”.

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The correct response was that, of course I was inspired by this experience and that my life was a continuous search to feed the ravenous maw of inspiration. But I would have been lying. The truth is that for a short, ice-cold few minutes I became a citizen of the cold, soulless Atlantic. Neither the seductive icy morning nor the wild mane of crashing waves yielded up the fragile flower of inspiration. Not even a scent of one. I hear no sympathetic songs resonating from the lonely cry of a gull or the murmurations of the sea on the grey rocks.

My inspiration to create is rarely born in the wilderness or in splendid solitude. Composition is an ongoing process rooted, for me at least, in the real world, not an artistic ethereal place I have to go to to create. Most often it comes in the kitchen, on a street, cycling in the cold rain or, as in the case of “Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows”, in the back of a bus travelling across the Netherlands with Anúna.

As part of my final visit to Florida Atlantic University, completing my tenure as the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Music Residency [2011-2013], I was required to produce a piece that would be performed by the music department. I had many ideas for it, some pretty conservative, some off-the-wall. But I knew that at the core of it would be the choral department where I had spent much of my time working. Over the three years I had made a connection with the staff and students there in a way was unexpected. I wanted to create something that was pretty much immediate, but also very clear in its intent and in the way it needed to be performed.

Back to the bus… well, this piece rose out of a series of conversations with the singers of Anúna, most of whom are around the same age as the singers at Florida Atlantic are. When I outlined my initial ideas for the commission to them, they were pretty surprised. Did I really want to write about real life? Well, I always thought I had been doing just that. The very positive reaction they gave me to some of the ideas was heartening. So I took the plunge.

For this commission I wanted to write a piece about simple aspects of life – a baby, children playing and old age, so the compositional process was all off-paper until the last week before the piece was due for submission. I went back to my Dutch cabin in the woods and wrote the text for “Flowers” that evening.

If you can’t see the Soundcloud links below, as some devices can’t see them, you can hear all of the three movements by clicking HERE.

Flowers

I sing flower,
Pretty flower
Sun, warm, cold water
Rainy shower.

Water trickle
Daddy tickle
Shiny bell ringing,
Mommy singing…

Soft, cool pillow
Curtain billow,
Little star peeping,
Teddy sleeping…

I sing shower,
Pretty flower
Shiny bell ringing,
Mommy singing…

The text is created around my own memories of my children and how they responded to certain things. The piece is gentle, but not trite, playful but also bitter-sweet. The musical language of “Flowers” is simple, with ostinati figures in the piano part and some rather heavy-handed effects of yawning, noisy daddies being too loud and over enthusiastic and, of course, Mommy sings in the kitchen in the morning, as she always does. I’ve wanted to have whistling in my music for a long time, so we end the piece with a whistle. Possibly the least and most profound piece I’ve written, and fun to sing.

Sunshine

Run into the golden sunshine
Run beneath a blue unfurling sky
Run into the bright blue morning
Catch the fleeting shadows as they fly.

Come into the golden sunshine
Run into a great unfolding song
Sail the new-blown dandelion and
Catch a wind to carry you along.

Running through the summer sunshine
Paint a new-born rainbow way on high
Come into the bright blue morning
Catch a fleeting swallow as they fly.

Every stream a river
Every pool the sea
Every hill a mountain
Every dream will be.

Every song to sing
Every tree to climb
Every bell to ring
Every word to rhyme

Sunshine, sunshine.

“Sunshine” explains itself. Joy, running in an endless summer day. I chose to set the vocal lines as expansively as possible, with arching lines. There is also a definite Gospel feel to this, which I hope the singers enjoyed singing as much as I did listening to their efforts. I love the very staccato piano part in this, played on this recording by the brilliant David Rossow. We had some great conversations about how to perform this entire work, and this movement in particular. David is the only composer I have every worked with very closely. He is a very, very fine musician, and his input on this score was always perceptive and intuitive.

Shadows

Shadow fall, Shadows calling.
Shadows call, shadows falling.

A song is ending, a failing melody
Scented wine of summer now a memory.
Golden leaves fall, echoing the autumn sun.
Cold winds call, their silent song begun.

Shadow call. Shadows calling.
Winter shadows dark and deep.

And the great wave will always weep upon the shore
And a cold wind caress the sea
And the white bird will one day sleep forever more
And her pale song will fade with me.

This movement has a very strong medieval flavour to it, using lots of false relations and modal colour. I had forgotten how much I love writing for the piano and David played the part without milking the obvious out of it, always using restraint and sensitivity.

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The position of Eminent Scholar has been a hugely educational process for me, and hopefully FAU too. I wanted to write something that reflected the energy and vitality of both staff and students. Much of my output in recent decades has reflected the career-path of my choir Anúna, and I’ve been somewhat restricted by that. Creating this work just at a time when I needed to look carefully at the trajectory I wanted to travel for the future has been an invaluable experience. This opportunity to write for, and work with, such an immensely talented and dedicated group of people will stay with me forever.

I can’t leave this without thanking a few people. Thank you so much to Dean Heather Coltman and Professor Rebecca Lautar for their support, advice and good humour. Thank you to the brilliant Professor Patricia Fleitas. All I can say is that I wish I had had a guiding hand like hers through my degrees. Her passion for her work is balanced perfectly with a sincere compassion for the students. Her musicianship and commitment to her art has been a revelation to me.

IMG_8465maStacie Lee Rossow [Pic. Marian Dolan]

Thank you to my friend Dr. Stacie Lee Rossow, conductor of the ensembles featured in the Soundcloud clips above. Stacie is a wonderful conductor, an inspiring leader of young musicians and was a huge influence on the tone I adopted during my time at FAU. I can’t begin to say how much it has meant to me to have worked with her so closely over these years. The work is dedicated to her.

Finally – thank you to the staff and students who crossed my path during this time. I will miss you all. To the students I have to say that you inspired me so, so much – and I envy you your teachers. You made me feel welcome, always a part of the myriad of things that were constantly evolving and being created around me. Until we meet again…

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Soundcloud clips

“Flowers, Sunshine and Shadows” for SSAATB Choir and Piano. Text and Music by Michael McGlynn.

Premiere date- April 20, 2013 by FAU Choral Organizations (FAU Chamber Singers, Patricia P. Fleitas, conductor and Krisztina Kover, pianist and FAU Women’s Chorus, Stacie Lee Rossow, conductor and David P. Rossow, pianist)
Premiere conducted by Dr. Stacie Lee Rossow with David P. Rossow, piano
As part of the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in Music Residency

New York Polyphony & John Tavener

In 1990 I didn’t consider myself to be a proper composer. I sometimes dreamed that I would one day be able to have my works performed by groups other than my own, but I was also pretty realistic about my music. It didn’t appear to speak in the same language as my Irish contemporary music colleagues being seen as too tonal and accessible. Yet even at that early stage I was acutely aware that I was doing something quite different to other composers. Not better, just different.

I couldn’t work out whether it was sheer stubbornness or just lack of flexibility that kept me exploring the same ideas over and over – modality, melodic structure, cascading rhythms and drones. That year remains with me as a very important one. I submitted a piece called “Dirgidh bhar Sleagha Sealga” to the Séan O Riada Memorial Trophy competition in choral composition at that year’s Cork Choral Festival. I won, very unexpectedly, as the work was unlike anything else being written in the contemporary Irish music field and I had assumed that the adjudicators were my peers. I was wrong. One of them  was none other than John Tavener.

Being brash and young I sought him out as he wandered around Cork, surrounded by an entourage. I asked him if he had any comment to make on the work. Any feedback, good or bad, would be massively valuable. He was silent. He mused, he pondered. Then he said one word – “primordial” and walked on. Its amazing how one word can colour your views of what you do so profoundly. It literally means “existing at or from the beginning of time”, something I would have said about much of his own output.

I had begun to feel that some of what I write wasn’t written by me at all. I often didn’t know why all the bits ended up together on the page, and I could always clearly tell when I was, and am, forcing them together rather than letting them flow naturally into structures and forms. While I still explore the same ideas, I have learned to take it slower – put less ideas on the page and develop what I do put down further. Which brings me to “O pia virgo”.

In 2013 I connected with the group New York Polyphony. I’d managed to miss their one concert in Dublin many years ago and had been so disgusted with myself that I vowed that I would take the first opportunity to properly introduce myself. I was pretty familiar with their performances of the sublime motets of composer Andrew Smith but there is no substitute for hearing performers live. When I contacted them I was rather flattered that I appeared to be pushing an open door and we decided to make something happen, so I began work on a new motet for them for a new album project and for inclusion in their live repertoire.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.New York Polyphony [photo copyright Chris Owyoung]

New York Polyphony have a visceral sound capable of intense virtuosity. It is a dark, masculine timbre, trained vastly but also very unaffected. This gives them a powerful and rich tone which instantly appeals. Its unsurprising that their last disc Times Go By Turns has just been nominated for a Grammy Award. While time was very tight it was just enough to create something that was sympathetic to what this amazing group of singers do so naturally. Sometimes it is very hard to let go of something that I compose, but I knew that this one is in safe hands.

I never met John Tavener again, and now never will. He was a unique composer, a special artist and he uttered the right word into the ear of a young man who just needed something at that moment. Without doubt this piece was influenced by his own music that mattered so much to so many people. Sadly he is gone from us now and when he hears the song of the angels, it won’t be an altogether unfamiliar sound.

You can hear the piece below (may not be available in all territories).

“O pia virgo” was premiered at the SWACDA conference in Little Rock by NYP on March 19th 2014 and featured on the Grammy-nominated album “Sing Thee Nowell” by NYP in 2015.

Available as sheet music from HERE.

Dedicated to the Memory of Laura Kostyra Plimpton