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!

Posted by: Colin Britt | July 18, 2019

Summer update!

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Well, as they say, it’s been a minute!

Greetings from Long Beach, where our dog and I are spending most of the summer with my wife as she performs for two months in Frozen at Disney. This “vacation” is giving me long overdue time to get caught up on sleep, emails, and some ongoing projects, some of which I’ll be detailing below!

Since my last update, a number of very exciting things have happened. The first was a pair of concerts given jointly by the West Village Chorale and Sky-Pony in March, one at Judson Memorial Church and one at Grace Church Van Vorst as part of their Cathedral Arts Live series. This concert, “Crossing Over,” was an incredibly memorable and compelling performance and I’m very proud of what we created together. You can find video of the complete Jersey City performance, masterfully edited by That Russian Guy, at this link:

And for a sample of the New York performance, check out “Action Movie” (video edited by Tyler Bertram):

Definitely one of the coolest and most exciting performances in recent memory!

Then, in April, I was honored to attend the premiere of my newest work for treble voices, “Imagination,” at CARNEGIE HALL. This piece was commissioned and premiered by the Rutgers University Voorhees Choir, under the superb direction of Dr. Brandon Williams. Ji Hea Hwang is the pianist and Yu Ouyang soars on the violin part.

The piece is a setting of a poem by Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to be published, and it was featured in a concert of musical settings of female poets. This is an excerpt from the sound check:

I kept pinching myself to make sure I was really there, listening to my music in that sacred venue! Thank you to Brandon and the Voorhees Choir for an incredible premiere.

Finally, in June the West Village Chorale joined forces with C4: The Choral Composer-Conductor Collective for a performance of new choral works, including pieces by Bassi, Betinis, Monk, O’Regan, Runestad, Trumbore, and world premieres by Biggs, Sullivan, and yours truly. Karen Siegel conducted the premiere of my newest work for double choir, “Belief,” which tackles the subject of believing survivors of sexual violence and harassment, and incorporated quotes from the Kavanaugh and Thomas hearings, along with high-profile court cases. A fully produced video of the piece is in the works, but you can see the live-streamed video here:

Because of the highly sensitive nature of this piece, I’m including a link to the text and program notes on a separate page: http://www.c4ensemble.org/june-2019-cycle-3.html

There were plenty of other wonderful things that happened this spring, but I’m even more excited to share plans for next year! I’ve just finished the first draft of my piece for the 2020 ACDA High School Honor Choir, which will be premiered in March at the Eastern Regional conference in Rochester. I’m also going to be writing a piece for the 100th anniversary of the Hartt School (and the 70th anniversary of the New Haven Chorale).

Stay tuned for more updates later this month…

 

Posted by: Colin Britt | March 4, 2019

TWO amazing commissions (and a new published piece)

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At ACDA in Kansas City

I’m absolutely elated to share that my newest choral work, “Imagination,” will be premiered by the Rutgers University Voorhees Choir, conducted by Dr. Brandon Williams, at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 2019. The piece is for treble voices, piano, and violin. It’s a setting of On Imagination by Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American woman to be published.

This will be part of a set called “In Her Words,” which includes settings of texts by female poets. Other featured composers include Jocelyn Hagen, David Brunner, Andrea Clearfield, and J. David Moore. I’m honored to be included in such amazing company!

Then, in March of 2020, I will be the commissioned composer for the ACDA Eastern Division High School Honor Choir! Dr. Edith Copley, from Northern Arizona University, will conduct the premiere of my setting of “Listening” by Amy Lowell. I’ll have more information to share about that soon, but needless to say I’m beyond humbled and excited!

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Lastly, please check out the newest addition to my published catalogue, newly released by Alliance Music Publications. This is the SSAA arrangement of “Afternoon on a Hill,” which I originally arranged for my friend and colleague Arianne Abela. I’m thrilled that this version is now available for purchase!

I just returned from a thrilling and revitalizing week at ACDA in Kansas City, and it was so good to reconnect with so many dear friends and colleagues, and to celebrate their successes! I can’t wait to see what the next year holds for all of us!

While searching for something completely unrelated, I stumbled across this GORGEOUS performance of “As there are flowers” by The National University of Singapore Choir, conducted by Prof. Nelson Kwei. Thank you for such a beautifully nuanced and emotional performance of this piece – I am deeply humbled and grateful!!

Posted by: Colin Britt | December 22, 2018

December news

It has certainly been an exciting season! I’ve had several concerts in the last few weeks, and I’ve also been very fortunate to have a couple premieres and new releases this month. Here are a few highlights:

  • On Wednesday, Nov. 14, I attended the premiere of two movements of a new trilogy of Sara Teasdale settings written for my friend Arianne Abela and the Amherst College Concert Choir as part of a collaborative venture between the music and visual arts programs. The ensemble was fantastic under her new leadership, tackling some really complex and exciting music, and I was thrilled with the premiere! I’ll be sharing that recording soon!
  • On Sunday, Dec. 2, I conducted my third annual Messiah Sing with the West Village Chorale and over 150 of our friends in New York.

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  • On Saturday, Dec. 8, I attended the premiere of my newest composition for tenor and bass voices, “Once, as I remember,” given by the Rutgers University Glee Club and my dear friend and mentor Patrick Gardner. The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir also gave a beautiful performance of my setting of “There is no rose.” I can’t wait to share the recordings from that performance – stay tuned!
  • Then, on Sunday, Dec. 9, I conducted my third annual holiday concert with the West Village Chorale, titled “Holidays Around the World.” This program featured music from Russia, England, Latvia, Nigeria, Haiti, Spain, Mexico, and the United States, and it was one of the most vibrant and polished performances I’ve had with this fabulous group. Here’s a video of one of our pieces from that program:

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  • Then, on Monday, Dec. 17, I conducted my fourth concert with the combined choirs at Rutgers Preparatory School. We sang music ranging from Rachmaninoff to Imogen Heap and from Paulus to the PENTATONIX. I am so grateful to work with such an outstanding group of students, and to be able to make music in such a supportive environment every day!
  • Finally, I’m thrilled to share the newly released debut recording of a piece I wrote for Tapestry. My composition, “I think awhile of love,” is the title track of the album, and Billy Janiszewski conducted an absolutely brilliant performance of the piece! I am beyond thrilled with how this recording came out, and I’m especially honored by how this piece has become something of a mantra for the ensemble. The piece (which I wrote in opposition to the divisive and intolerant rhetoric coming from the current political administration) sets a poem by Henry David Thoreau over an accompanying sequence of ostinati that uses something like 30 translations of the word “love.” The emotional apex of the work comes in the final two stanzas, pasted below:

Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side
⁠Withstand the winter’s storm,
⁠And, spite of wind and tide,
⁠Grow up the meadow’s pride,
⁠For both are strong.

Above they barely touch, but, undermined
⁠Down to their deepest source,
⁠Admiring you shall find
⁠Their roots are intertwined
⁠Insep’rably.

Please enjoy their brilliant recording – and check out the whole album, which is outstanding!

Lastly, please have a safe and wonderful holiday – see you in 2019!

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With Victoria Britt

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