October 18th, 2017
This article is part of a series highlighting new choral repertoire that can be used by a wide range of choirs to address different community issues.
When Choral Artists of Sarasota decided to commission a new work, the organization went a bit of a different route than the traditional model of tailoring a piece to its own ensemble. Choral Artists wanted other choruses to not only benefit from the process, but to shape it as well.
The result is Listen to the Earth—the title of the forthcoming composition from composer James Grant, but also the name of a broader effort to encourage environment-themed programming from choruses around Earth Day 2019.
The project began as a conversation between Grant and Choral Artists’ artistic director, Joseph Holt—long-time friends with a history of collaborating together. “Joe in particular has a strong commitment to choral music as a force for social good,” Choral Artists executive director Susan Burke explains. “Jim had an idea brewing for a work celebrating the earth and the environment. When those two came together, they talked about making this a project that would be collaborative.”
The material in the piece broadens the message of celebrating the earth. “As Jim started researching for the piece, he found that there's a lot of material from astronauts, and the profound impact that looking down on our planet from outer space has had on them,” recounts Burke. Grant is juxtaposing these writings from astronauts with words from naturalist John Muir, the founder of The Sierra Club, as the foundation for the piece, taking the work from the ecosystem of the deep woods to beyond the reaches of our atmosphere.
Flexibility and Accessibility
Commission consortiums have become a practical way for choruses to share the cost of creating a piece of music. “So few organizations can afford a full-fledged commission independently,” says Burke. Listen to the Earth takes this model, and adds a layer of accessibility by making different versions of the work available for different types of ensembles. “That's the way Jim conceived of doing it,” Burke notes. “He wants the message to get out.”
Three accompaniments for the piece are available for consortium participants: full orchestra, 13-piece chamber ensemble, and piano. And participants don’t have to choose—they receive materials for all three orchestrations. Says Burke, “It can be taken on by different kinds of choruses and suited to different venues.”
Burke says that the goal was to make the commission accessible on many levels—“artistically achievable and financially feasible.” Choral Artists of Sarasota based the commission fee on the budget size of the participating choruses, making it less of a burden for smaller choruses to join. Burke adds that the work is written at a difficulty level that is within reach for most community choruses whose members can read music.
Multiple Ways to Participate
Though Grant’s new work serves as the catalyst, Choral Artists also wanted to create an avenue for choruses to take part in a wider movement that didn’t require signing on as a commission participant. “We also want to reach out to choruses and encourage them to program repertoire around Earth Day, and tell us about it,” says Burke.
Choruses can submit information about their planned environmental-themed activities, which will be curated and highlighted on the project’s website, ListenToTheEarth.org. Choral Artists of Sarasota will also distribute a master list of all participants and their activities that choruses can include in their printed concert programs, all free of charge. “We want to use the voice of choruses to raise awareness of our planet, the beauty and wonder that it holds, and the importance of caring for it,” says Burke.
The organization hopes that offering inclusive options to get involved will set the stage for a widely-celebrated culmination around Earth Day (April 22) 2019. Grant’s piece will then serve to extend the impact of all the movement’s participants. “The commission gives the project legs, so that it can live on past this initial focal point,” Burke says. “We hope it will be performed over many years.”
Responding to Feedback
Choral Artists has taken a page from the title of their project—by doing a lot of listening. They realized that it would be difficult to anticipate all the needs of an ambitious undertaking from the outset. To its credit, the organization resolved to begin, but keep their ears open as the effort developed.
“We knew that if we didn't start, we would talk forever,” recalls Burke. “It was in that process of putting information together and talking to collaborators that questions arose, and we used them to shape the project. Our discussions with other interested parties helped give us insight into what they were interested in, what was needed, and what would work.”
Their approach has brought clear benefits. “Over time, it's become clear that we needed to simplify the vision and give it time to develop,” says Burke. “The original piece had soloists, a chorus, a children's chorus, drums, and lots of things. It became clear that a lot of choruses weren't ready to sign up for something so complex. In the end, the message got stronger and simpler with fewer moving parts, and therefore more manageable and attractive to a wider audience, I believe.”
Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.