Case Study: adapting music for amateur choir

A trained soprano approached me recently about adapting a famous Buddhist song, arranged for four-part voice, for a 45-person amateur choir, pianist, cello, and saxophone.

As typical of Chinese songs, it is written in jian pu, which means simplified notation. She explained that the original key of F major is too high for choir members. As there are few male singers and the melody carried by the men, some of the women have to double up.

Meanwhile, the jian pu has been translated into wu xian pu, which literally means five-line notation, or the standard notation professional musicians use. 

I said, one way is to transpose the song down half a step to E major. We can keep going further to Eb or D major until it’s comfortable for everyone. I suspect D should be sufficient. 

The beauty of using simplified notation is that there is no need to transpose. The numbers correspond to the notes in that particular scale. Thus 1 represents do, 2 is re, 3 is mi, etc. In the key of F, 1 is the tonic of F, 2 is G, 3 is A, etc. In the key of D, 1 is D, 2 is E, 3 is F#, etc.

As the choir members practice to a recording, it would be necessary to either transpose the recording to the new key, which can be done by such software as Audacity or record the accompanying instruments playing in the new key. 

As for the instrumentalists who don’t read jian pu, some may be able to transpose note by note into the new key. It may be easier, however, to specify the chord progression first, e.g. I, IV, V, etc, and then label the new chords in the new key. I am curious how the pianist accompanies the choir, for the sheet music indicates only the melody lines and verse. Similarly how does the cellist figure out the bass line – by ear? It seems rather odd to have a saxophone in the mix.

Perhaps I should do some homework before attending the rehearsal next Monday in Zuilen, a borough of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Without a piano and a computer with notation software, I am limited in what I can do.

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Dome Church Sunday Service Domkerk Utrecht

Until my friend Anne from Oahu raved about her Sunday service experience at the Dome Church in Utrecht, I never thought of attending church there. For one, I already go to the weekly Saturday afternoon free concerts in the church, after shopping for bread and cheese at the market. Sunday mornings are reserved for my triple workouts at my sports club: weight-lifting, aerobics, and yoga.

Out of curiosity I decided to attend this 10:30 am service today.

Unlike the audience at the Saturday 3:30 pm concerts, the members of the congregation actually noticed that I was a newbie. They acknowledged me as I found my seat. A gentleman in the next pew was quick to gesture to go to page four of the 10-page handout.  

The dome tower is the tallest building in Utrecht. It’s considered the center of the city. Yet it is not attached to the church as one would expect. If a church is shaped like a cross, the top of it is missing. The dome church is probably the most important church of Utrecht, and it’s a must-see if you’re visiting. I have attended packed concerts of Mozart’s Requiem and music on period instruments over the years. The free Saturday afternoon concerts range from solo organ to choir to music ensembles. 

What I found unique about the one-and-half-hour service today is the quality and quantity of music. There was more music than text. In fact, whenever it was possible to have music, there was singing. And I felt liberated sight-singing to my heart’s content. 

There was antiphonal music, making creative use of space. While most songs were unison, there were occasions where we altered between tutte and the choir; tutte, men only, women only; tutte, north rows, south rows, choir. Thus the spacing of the music was felt and heard. 

There was good variety in the music, too, not just major or minor keys but also changing time signatures, use of accidentals in shifting tonality, and multiple meters within a song. In other words, it’s not your usual single key in a single time signature with predictable quarter note beats.

While I missed the prelude, I was overjoyed to hear the organ improvisation during the communion. Here’s a short clip towards the end.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand most of the spoken Dutch. I could pronounce the words, read the music, and sing with everyone else. The organist played a magnificent postlude at the end of the service. It was worth not leaving the church just to drown in this grand sound. 

After queuing to exit the church, I walked up to the ouderling  and smiled, “Bart, do you remember me?” It’s nice to recognize faces after being away for five years.

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Spatial music: movement and sound in Nicolaikerk

Years ago, as a composition student, I was asked to write music to make use of the huge space in St Nicolas Church in Utrecht. Pressed for time, I adapted a piece for baroque recorders and baroque violin. Only at the premiere did I see the greater possibilities of space and movement.

On 29 Sept and 1st Oct 2016 Nicolaikerk in Utrecht celebrates the 60th anniversary of its “marcussenorgel”with a concert of adult and children’s choirs, trumpet, trombone, two organs, and two premieres. 

As a member of the audience, I find it unusual to walk into the setting of a concert where chairs are arranged around the columns of the church and not line by line. The first challenge is to figure out where best to sit. That requires knowing where the musicians will stand. One can only guess that they will go to the music stands and the organs.

Before we even see the musicians, we hear the music. Voices float from afar and around. The members of the choir are among us or hidden behind columns. Once they emerge, the voices crescendo and blend as they converge. This piece is not even on the program. It’s a warm-up.

Soon I realize that I can’t see the musicians. Strange that we want to see what we hear. 

I move from my comfortable seat between two gentlemen I know across to the other side to sit among strangers. It’s more important to see than to be comfortable.

The program booklet which cost 1 euro introduces the first piece “Music and Space” (1927) by Piet Kee which premiered on 6 July 1971 in Haarlem, a great city of great organs. This rondo for two organs and five brass winds is a powerful opening, followed by the more subdued children’s choir and organ performing Missa Brevis by Benjamin Britten. 

The concert program alters between modern and old, atonal and tonal, almost deliberately to relax the ear. Hans Leo Hassler’s (1564 – 1612) Nun fanget an for brass quartet precedes the last two pieces, premieres of Christian Richter‘s work for two organs, mixed choir children’s choir and brass quintet and “Hegemony” for carillon. For the latter piece, we are given a glass of sparkling wine as we queue to go outdoors. 

​Concerts abound in this Roman city of cobbled stones and church bells. Even a church service commands great music. I think I’ll cycle to the dome church for the 10 o’clock service Sunday.

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Have ʻuke, will travel


Tiny Tenor of Romero Creations (mahogany)

This past January, I introduced myself in Joel Katz‘s intermediate ʻukulele class by announcing that I was downsizing from the nine foot grand piano to the less than two foot ʻukulele. People laughed.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t giving up the piano by any means. Rather, I was embracing the ʻukulele. It has my namesake after all: KU in ʻukulele.

In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A few of my music students had shared their love of the instrument. One even gave me a hand-built ʻukulele stand as a parting gift. Eventually I succumbed to my usual thirst for novelty and variety.

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College students react to “Following the Ninth”

Part two of Kerry Candaele’s Beethoven trilogy is under way. I pledged $35 for the Kickstarter Project which ends on May 19th, 2016. The way this crowd funding works is that if the goal is not reached, the fundraiser gets nothing. It’s my sincere hope that my friends and readers click on the above link and preview the next film in the making. It’s about Beethoven’s only opera – Fidelio.
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Fly Me to the Moon for Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday

2015 is a year many Sinatra lovers will celebrate with songs that he made famous. One of these is a favorite among my piano students. Each year, a new pianist will ask to play “Fly Me to the Moon.”

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Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival poem and song: dan yuan ren chang jiu

When I asked my mom to select songs made popular by the late Teresa Teng besides my favorite Ni Ze Me Shuo, she mentioned Dan Yuan Ren Chang Jiu. On the night of the super blood moon and lunar eclipse, I learned of its significance. The lyrics come from a famous poem by Su Shi, also known as Su Dong Po. The song is associated with the Mid Autumn Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. For 2015, it’s Sunday September 27th.

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