Posted by: Colin Britt | December 20, 2020

“The Same Word” – short film launch!

The Same Word – First Impressions

In August of 2016, I received an email from an acquaintance of a Yale friend, a German journalist named Dorothee Schwarz, who was reaching out to me to ask if I’d like to be a composer on an international collaborative large-scale musical project, called The Same Word. (The piece transcends convenient titles, but I’ve taken to calling it an interfaith oratorio for short) After a bit of disbelief and convincing myself that this was in fact real and that she really wanted to work with me, we agreed to meet up in New York to discuss the project further, a meeting that finally happened in January 2017 right after the inauguration and subsequent Women’s March. We quickly bonded over our shared convictions about interfaith cooperation and multiculturalism, as well as our world outlook and musical interests.

The project was immediately tantalizing to me – a large-scale choral/orchestral work that would set excerpts from four of the world’s main religions, highlighting their commonalities and similar themes as a way to promote acceptance and understanding. Each of the four composers would represent one of these religions – I would represent the Christian tradition, Suad Bushnaq the Islamic tradition, Na’ama Tamir Kaplan the Jewish tradition, and Steven Tanoto the Buddhist tradition. There would be visual art, a performance tour, a documentary… It seemed too good to be true!

Fast forward to October 2018, when I was flown out to Hamburg to meet with the rest of the artistic team for the first time over a whirlwind 36-hour visit. Three of the four composers joined with Doro (the visionary and librettist), Martin Schneekloth (the musical director), and several of the documentary crew. We had just enough time to get to know one another while planting seeds for the next steps in this collaboration.

Fast forward again to August 2019, when Doro, all four composers, our visual artist, musical director and assistant MD, and documentary crew met together in Israel for a 10-day immersion in Jerusalem and Haifa. We explored the Old City, including a tour under the ramparts of the second temple, a visit to an excavation taking place near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a stop at the Tower of David, a visit to the Hebrew Music Museum, a morning on the Temple Mount, and a very painful but necessary trip to Yad Vashem to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. We went to restaurants, cafes, markets, concerts, shops, and concert halls. We also took a day trip to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and spent two days in Haifa at the foot of Mount Carmel and the Bahai Hanging Gardens. And we had hours and hours of thought-provoking, life-affirming, invigorating conversations about music, language, history, and of course, the piece we were going to write.

Then in January of this year, we reconvened for a third time in New York. While the primary goal of this visit was to nail down a libretto and establish working habits and structure, we still managed to get in a little sight-seeing and research, including trips to the Rubin Museum, the Museum at Eldridge Street, the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, a Buddhist shrine, MoMA, and very scenic – if chilly – walks on the High Line and across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was especially fun to get to play tour guide with these wonderful humans, and to give some guidance on the subway system (no, you CAN’T swipe a second time to get a better take!!!). And, of course, we shared some amazing food and wonderful laughs.

And then we went our separate ways to begin work on the piece.

The plan was to finish one movement, Creation, as a way to prove our ability to collaborate on a work of this magnitude, while also giving our team something to show as a way to build interest in the project. We spent most of the summer working on this movement, while fine-tuning our approach to collaboration, and then in September, the first movement was rehearsed and recorded in Hamburg.

I can’t wait to show you this amazing piece, and I’m so proud of what we all contributed to bring it to life. In the meantime, you’ll be able to watch the “trailer” of the project at the top of this post, and get a little sense of how this team has come together. (You can also hear me whine about synthesizers in classical music)

This is such an exciting project, and I am so honored and grateful to be part of this team.

Posted by: Colin Britt | December 14, 2020

What is choral music like in 2020?

“Dona nobis pacem” by Mark A. Miller, performed by the West Village Chorale

This is usually my favorite week of the year.

The third week in December always begins with the West Village Chorale giving a holiday concert, with an audience packed into New York’s Judson Memorial Church ready to hear glorious music and sing along with popular carols. Then, on Monday night would be my winter choral concert at Rutgers Prep, with the six choral groups on campus coming together at Voorhees Chapel on the Rutgers University campus to share their work from the last three months. On Wednesday, I always take my select group from RPS caroling at area retirement homes and the Bridgewater mall, a fun excuse for our kids to get off campus and bring some joy to these communities. Then on the last day of classes, we go caroling around our campus and share holiday music with kids from pre-k through grade 12. And, of course, there are holiday parties and gifts and hugs.

This year, there will be none of that.

277 days ago, I wrote about packing up my classroom, canceling every performance in my spring schedule, and watching helplessly as the world shut down around me. I was despairing, frightened, and mourning the loss of what could have been.

Six and a half months ago, I wrote about how we as a choral community would have to find ways to move on, and how we wouldn’t let the pandemic eliminate our industry or define our response to the challenges we faced. In hindsight, I’d say this was one of those times when you say something over and over again hoping for it to become true — but I don’t think any of us had a choice.

So where are we now?

“As there are flowers”, performed during the pandemic by the ECU Chamber Singers under the direction of Dr. James Franklin

In the last eight months, I’ve felt anxiety and depression, but I’ve also been astounded and inspired by the creativity, resilience, grit, and optimism of my colleagues, mentors, students, and friends in the performing arts. I’ve desperately missed live choral music, but I have seen some staggeringly beautiful performances and astonishing innovations in the face of the greatest existential threat any of us have ever encountered in our careers. We can’t make the kind of music I know my choirs are capable of, but I’ve watched singers tackle new challenges such as self-taping and wrestling with Google Drive, and in some of the most inspiring cases I’ve seen them grow into more confident singers and performers. I’ve learned new things from my students and beamed with pride as they’ve overcome the awkwardness of singing with masks in an outdoor tent and put up with lawnmowers and 18-wheeler engine braking on the nearby highway to sing.

And I’ve learned some new skills too, including audio and video editing I never would have dreamed of tackling nine months ago. I’ve put together over 80 virtual videos for my adult, church, and student choirs, and I haven’t yet resorted to throwing my laptop out the window. I’m not by any means a great video editor, but I’m actually rather proud of several of the finished products.

Mark Guerette and Colin Britt sing U2’s “MLK” in remembrance of September 11

Yesterday, the West Village Chorale gave a completely virtual holiday concert. With the incredible audio production help from Jim Bilodeau and video editing by Liam McNamara, Wei-Ting Duo, and myself, we were able to present virtual performances of 14 small- and large-group numbers. At the same time, the concert was a holiday program that I’m extremely proud of, in that it represented composers who look like this country and sent a message of resilience in the face of despair and injustice.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but it feels good to know that we can move forward together and navigate this strange new world. We can find ways to create beauty and community and joy. We can still touch people with our art, while still sustaining arts organizations with a business model that’s actually stable. We can still teach students and encourage them to make connections and grow as musicians. And, as my friend and former college choir director Ed Bolkovac reminds me, we will never, ever, ever take singing together in person for granted again.

See you in 2021.

Posted by: Colin Britt | December 11, 2020

“I wonder as I wander” sung by Voices of Ascension

“I wonder as I wander,” performed in 2019 by Voices of Ascension

Last year, I had the privilege of conducting a family concert with the outstanding New York ensemble Voices of Ascension. On that program, we performed my arrangement of “I wonder as I wander.” I am beyond thrilled with their performance, and was delighted to know this recording exists, and to be able to share it here!

As we enter this time of year usually filled with in-person concerts and end-of-year celebrations, it’s nice to be reminded of a time when our lives were filled with live music. I wait anxiously and hopefully for the day when we will again be able to sing together.

Posted by: Colin Britt | November 18, 2020

Virtual choir recording of “How can we sing”

The virtual recording of “How can we sing”

Eight months ago this week, I began work in earnest on my first piece in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a setting of Psalm 137 called “How can we sing.” As soon as the shutdown began, I found myself unable to get the words “how can we sing in a foreign land?” out of my head, and I felt that these lines from the psalmist were calling to me.

After completing the piece in exactly three days, I reached out to friends, colleagues, and former and present students to ask if anyone would be willing to participate in a virtual choir recording of this work. I was blown away by the response I received – almost 50 singers from literally every corner of my life submitted audio and video recordings to bring this piece to life.

Of course, life in 2020 had other plans, and it wasn’t until the end of the summer when Jim Bilodeau and I actually had time to edit the project. Jim beat me to it and finished editing the audio file before the 2020/21 school year started, but of course I took the longest. And while I wish I’d been able to finish this project back at the height of my personal anguish in the late spring… little did I know back in March just how long this musical exile would last.

A tremendous thanks to Jim for his brilliant audio engineering, and to all of these incredible singers for giving this piece a voice.

Posted by: Colin Britt | May 19, 2020

Day 68: How to move on

It’s been 68 days since I packed up my books, choir music, and laptop from my classroom and left the Rutgers Prep campus. It’s been 68 days since the last time I conducted a choir of any kind. It’s been 68 days since I gave a hug or handshake to anyone except my wife.

And it’s been 68 days of reading alarming news reports, blogs, and social media posts that all point to the dangers of communal singing of any kind – performances, rehearsals, and informal group sings all seem to be hyperactive germ orgies where the one thing that enables us all to use our voices at the same time is now the last thing we should do. How can we sing, when our audiences aren’t allowed to attend? How can we sing, when choirs in Washington and Amsterdam suffered staggeringly high rates of COVID-19 following rehearsals and performances? How can we sing, when indoor gatherings of more than 10 people are banned or discouraged by the CDC?

I’ve spent 68 days feeling intermittent despair, grief, anger, and a sense of numbness at the uncertain state of my profession. But lately, that simmering brew of negativity has stopped being able to fill the part of my soul that was eviscerated when I lost the ability to teach and make live music in my classroom. Some of it’s a matter of necessity – I still have a responsibility to teach my students, to provide music in worship services, and to provide for my household. But some of it’s a rediscovered sense of purpose, a drive to innovate and reinvent. We can lament the immense sense of loss we feel – and I do lament it – but we also have to find a way forward.

Early on in the quarantine, I was irritated by some memes being thrown around on Facebook that seemed to poke fun at the compulsion to create so-called “virtual choirs.” There’s a charming one of Batman backhanding Robin as Robin suggests something to the effect of “If Eric Whitacre can do it, so can you!” Since they first surfaced, I’ve come to the conclusion that these memes weren’t created to belittle the desire to create virtual choirs, but rather to knock some sense into the people who casually suggest that it must be easy to throw one of those things together. It most certainly is not easy. It’s time-consuming and tedious and frustrating, and it requires expensive software and a huge leap of faith that your singers know how to operate a smartphone. But it is possible.

I believe the middle ground here is not in saying “never” to one of these projects, nor is it giving up the idea of collective music-making entirely and trying to replace it with solo projects or written work. Rather, it is in accepting that there is room for trying new ideas and experimenting with different strategies. And it’s admitting that there is in fact something oddly beautiful about these kaleidoscopic arrays of singers wearing earbuds and singing in their kitchens or back porches. After watching one of our videos, one of the singers in my church choir marveled that there’s something strangely intimate about this new way of making music together – “We never get to watch one another when we sing in a choir.” It’s a different sensation, of course, but it can be community-building in a surprising way.

If you’ve made it this far into the blog, I’ll endeavor to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the last several weeks. Some may be obvious, but they weren’t entirely obvious to me before we found ourselves in this situation.

  1. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This paraphrase of an adage attributed to Voltaire has never felt truer in my career. We kid ourselves if we think we’re going to find the perfect solution to the absence of live choral singing. But if we accept that perfection is not realistic, we can still create something good, and maybe even something beautiful.
  2. You will fail multiple times. We all need to be reminded of that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had my computer crash, or I’ve lost a file that I had spent hours on, or that a project just wasn’t working because singers and conductors are human. And it’s ok.
  3. You will have to learn new skills. Bit by bit, I’m starting to get the hang of Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro. I’m also getting better at creating guide tracks and conductor videos, and at collaborating with instrumentalists. I’m getting better with Zoom and live streaming too, and I’m finding new ways to run rehearsals that don’t crash and burn because I don’t know how to screen share.
  4. You will need lots of file storage. I’m at something like 500 GB and counting of videos on my external hard drive. These things take up a lot of memory, even at their lowest resolution.
  5. Learn from other choruses and conductors. This is an ongoing process, but I’ve been so encouraged and amazed by some of the innovative and creative things these groups are doing. C4, for example, is embarking on a virtual concert series in pursuit of the lowest internet latency (the single biggest reason why simultaneous virtual singing has been impossible). That’s pretty freaking cool.
  6. Community comes first. One of the biggest voids in all of our lives during this pandemic has been the lack of community gatherings we normally experience in choirs. That’s a huge reason why community choirs are so popular – the community part of that term is a/the driving force. But it’s possible to continue that community online, on social media, or while practicing social distancing. And our singers miss the community as much as, if not more than, making music together.
  7. ASK FOR HELP. Above all, my biggest lesson learned in this process has been that doing this alone is impossible. If making one of these videos or recordings is daunting, that’s ok. There’s a vast community of trained and self-training people who have figured out how to do this, or have taught themselves new skills. And if you’re lucky, you might even have friends who do this sort of thing for a living, and who can lend a hand when you know your skills aren’t adequate to achieve what you’re trying to create. Ask.

During the last 68 days, I’ve had some of the worst moments of my career. But I’ve also had some of the greatest moments of inspiration, and some of the most beautiful and touching experiences with the students and singers I love so much. There is a path forward, and we will forge it together.

I’ll leave you with a virtual performance my students made of “As there are flowers,” one of the pieces we were preparing for our spring concert and Disney Performing Arts trip. We won’t be able to have those performances, but thanks to their grit and determination, and in a huge part to audio engineering by my friend Jim Bilodeau, we still found a way to sing. Together. And we made this.

Posted by: Colin Britt | March 14, 2020

Cancellations and choral music in the COVID-19 era

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Less than one week ago I was writing about my exciting trip to Rochester for the ACDA Eastern Division conference, and about some very exciting upcoming concerts, including the West Village Chorale‘s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and the premiere my new commissioned piece for the Maine Bicentennial, So Also We Sing.

What a difference a few days make. Within the span of about 6 hours on Thursday, each of my teaching jobs and choruses made the difficult but necessary decision to close down and postpone our upcoming performances until the coronavirus pandemic has receded. My church choir will not be singing together or rehearsing for the foreseeable future, and the church itself will be broadcasting services on a youtube channel, rather than risking the health of parishioners by continuing in-person services. The West Village Chorale has postponed our Sunday concert until an undetermined future date, and Tuesday night rehearsals are likewise suspended. And in possibly the saddest and most painful moment of my teaching career, I had to tell my students with tears in my eyes that I honestly didn’t know when I’d see them again. The uncertainty and fear we all face seems unprecedented, and for those of us in the choral world, it’s paralyzing.

When I think back about the worst days of my life – 9/11, the sudden death of a close personal friend, Sandy Hook, and certainly natural disasters and political unrest – on each of those occasions our communities were able to come together in solidarity, and to comfort one another. We could hug and kiss each other, hold hands, and cry, and those of us who draw comfort and inspiration from music could lift our voices together in communal song. It’s what we do with our art – we unite, we galvanize, we uplift. But not with this virus. This silent, invisible danger threatening us all prevents us from doing that. It feels eerily like a hurricane or blizzard descending on our community, except we can’t see it coming, and we don’t know who among us might be infected. So we retreat from contact and interaction, we quarantine ourselves, and above all, we certainly don’t gather together.

Asking musicians not to join and engage with one another is kind of like asking a bird to stop flying. It won’t kill them, but it feels like there suddenly seems to be less of a world out there. These necessary and life-saving measures will most assuredly limit the spread of this dangerous virus, but all of us who have devoted our lives to performing with and for one another now face an emotional and existential test unlike any we’ve encountered in our lifetimes. And those of us who teach music now find ourselves struggling to adapt to a cold and distant world of online instruction; it may fill the hours normally spent in the classroom, but it will never even come close to replacing the act of singing or playing together in person.

I realize that some of these are the epitome of first-world problems. I for one am incredibly fortunate to have a strong support system in place, and to work for institutions who will continue to provide for their employees as this social distancing phase unfolds. There are thousands upon thousands of artists who will not have it as easy as me, and I encourage you to visit one of their fundraising sites to support those artists who find themselves without any income for the foreseeable future.

And my heart goes out to the millions of people who will have an even harder time than we will – single under- and unemployed parents trying to care for children who now have no guaranteed meals because schools have also been shuttered, people with compromised immune systems, the elderly and infirm who are at the highest risk from this virus, and of course people already suffering from its effects. This is going to hit all of us in some way. But for a large number of us who have devoted our lives towards healing and bringing light and hope into the world with our music, this is a new and particularly agonizing challenge we’re now facing.

But we will overcome it. Together, even if not physically. We are strong, and resilient, and we will find a way.

If you’ve read this far without giving up, please enjoy the performance given at ACDA by the Rutgers University Voorhees Choir (conducted by Dr. Brandon Williams) of “Imagination,” my setting of a text by Phillis Wheatley, who was the first African-American woman to publish a book (while still enslaved!). If you’re looking for inspiration in these trying times, try drawing some from these incredible words:

    Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Be safe, everyone. See you on the other side.
Posted by: Colin Britt | March 8, 2020

ACDA performances and premieres!

I just returned from a fabulous ACDA Eastern Division conference in Rochester, where I saw some incredible performances (including the Rutgers Voorhees Choir and Glee Club), caught up with dear friends, and met some delightful composers and conductors.

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With Greg Hankins (piano) and Dr. Edith Copley (conductor)

Oh, and I also had a premiere! I was incredibly honored to be the commissioned composer for the 2020 ACDA Eastern Division High School Honor Choir. This was such a delightful and humbling experience, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first performance! Dr. Edith Copley led 170 of the best high school singers in the Northeast in the premiere of my piece “Listening,” which sets a powerful Amy Lowell text:

LISTENING Amy Lowell (1874 – 1925)
’T is you that are the music, not your song.
The song is but a door which, opening wide,
Lets forth the pent-up melody inside,
Your spirit’s harmony, which clear and strong
Sing but of you. Throughout your whole life long
Your songs, your thoughts, your doings, each divide
This perfect beauty; waves within a tide,
Or single notes amid a glorious throng.

The song of earth has many different chords;
Ocean has many moods and many tones
Yet always ocean. In the damp Spring woods
The painted trillium smiles, while crisp pine cones
Autumn alone can ripen. So is this
One music with a thousand cadences.

The students sang with such beauty and understanding, and Dr. Copley’s interpretation was absolutely sublime. Here’s a video (courtesy of Viraj Lal) of the premiere:

But that’s not all! The Rutgers University Voorhees Choir, under the incredible direction of Dr. Brandon Williams, performed my piece “Imagination,” which I wrote for them last year (and they premiered at Carnegie Hall in April 2019). I’ll have a bigger excerpt to share later, but here’s a quick snippet from their sound check:

It was a very exciting conference indeed! Congratulations to all of these amazing singers, instrumentalists, and conductors on their brilliant work!

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Posted by: Colin Britt | January 20, 2020

Rutgers University Voorhees Choir performs “Snow-Flakes”

I was fortunate enough to conduct the Voorhees Choir while Dr. Brandon Williams was on sabbatical. Here is a snippet of our December 7, 2019 concert – a performance of the SSAA arrangement of my piece “Snow-Flakes,” originally written for Aoide Chamber Singers.

Posted by: Colin Britt | November 30, 2019

Hartt and New Haven Chorale commission

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

As I announced over the summer, I am very excited and honored to be the commissioned composer for a shared anniversary celebration – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Hartt School (my alma mater) and the 70th anniversary of the New Haven Chorale.  Dr. Edward Bolkovac, my former teacher and mentor, will conduct the premiere, which will be performed by the Hartt School Choruses and members of the Hartt Symphony Orchestra, the New Haven Chorale, and the Hartford Chorale.

The new piece, titled In the Service of the Beautiful, is for choir, string orchestra, harp, and wind instruments. The libretto is a compilation of texts and writings by Moshe Paranov, one of the founders and longest-serving faculty members of the Hartt School. The title comes from a motto the school adopted in the 20th century, translated from the Greek Eneka tou kalou, which serves as a melodic motif throughout the work.

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Woolsey Hall

The premieres will take place on May 1st, at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, and on May 3rd, at Woolsey Hall in New Haven. Full details about the performance can be found below:

As part of the ongoing celebration of its 100th Anniversary, The Hartt School of the University of Hartford is pleased to announce two exciting performances on Friday, May 1 at 7PM at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, and Sunday, May 3 at 4:30PM at Woolsey Hall at Yale University in New Haven! Both concerts will feature Berlioz’s jubilant Te Deum, In the Service of the Beautiful, a newly commissioned work by Hartt alum Colin Britt, and two works by Gabrieli and Gesualdo arranged for brass by Edward Cumming. In addition, the May 1 concert will also include Intrada 1631 by Stephen Montague, and the May 3 concert will feature the premiere of a new piece by Steven Gryc written for trombonist Haim Avitsur. The massive performing forces will include The Hartt School Choruses and Symphony Orchestra, as well as longtime community collaborators: The New Haven Chorale, Edward Bolkovac, Music Director; the Hartford Chorale, Richard Coffey, Music Director; and organist Ezequiel Menendez. Conductors for these two gala concerts will include Glen Adsit, Edward Bolkovac, Ziwei Ma, and Haksong Lee. Mark your calendars now for these two extraordinary performances!!

Posted by: Colin Britt | November 2, 2019

Fall season update

Well, the fall semester is off and running at full speed! It’s hard to believe the school year is already two months underway.

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This fall, in addition to continuing my duties as director of choirs at Rutgers Preparatory School in New Jersey and as artistic director and conductor of the West Village Chorale, I’ve also taken on the responsibility as a sabbatical replacement conductor for the Rutgers University Voorhees Choir, normally under the direction of the brilliant Dr. Brandon Williams. You may remember that the Voorhees Choir gave the premiere of my composition “Imagination” at Carnegie Hall last spring; now it’s my privilege to conduct this excellent ensemble this semester while Dr. Williams is on sabbatical!

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With the West Village Chorale, we are busy preparing for an exciting season, including our upcoming holiday concert, “Song and Carols from the North.” But barely after our rehearsals for the season had started, we were invited to perform with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra at the United Nations General Assembly as part of the UN Day celebrations. That’s right – the UN. About 26 of us were brought in to rehearse and perform three pieces by Dana Al Fardan, Qatar’s most prominent female composer (she wrote the Qatar Airways boarding music, for one). The amazing Eímear Noone conducted us alongside this fabulous orchestra and several amazing vocal soloists. What an amazing way to start the year!

I have some other exciting updates which I’ll share in the coming weeks, but for now, happy November!

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