The WELS National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts was last week at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN and Martin Luther College, New Ulm, MN. "Mighty Deeds" was originally commissioned to be the closing piece of the opening festival concert of the conference, but about six months before the conference I was told its position would change to be the opening piece of the opening festival concert. No pressure!
When I got the commission last summer, I was in the middle of a Teaching Guitar Workshop at Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc, WI. Since it was getting towards the end of the summer and the new school year was approaching, I didn't do much composing except thinking about piece and what I wanted to do with it. I did contact an orchestra conductor who graciously shared with me a number of John Williams orchestral scores that I could study for orchestration techniques. But beyond that, I didn't get down to any serious composing on it until Spring Break 2011.
I wish I could say that I spent my Spring Break in a tropical cottage away from the hustle and bustle and noise of this world, but it would be more accurate to say that I spent a lot of time driving with the radio off, trying to hear the music in my head first before writing it down or going to a piano to try and play it. Many summers ago, when I was just starting my Master of Church Music program at Concordia, River Forest, IL (now Concordia University, Chicago), my then composition teacher and first advisor, Richard Hillert (of "This is the Feast of Victory" fame) encouraged me to not compose at the keyboard but to listen to the music in my head first before trying to play it. His reasoning was that you could hear much more complex music than your fingers could ever play. He was right!
Spring Break 2011 came and went awfully fast. It wasn't until the last Sunday afternoon of Spring Break, right before having to go back to teaching the next day, that the introduction finally hit me. And it came all of a sudden all at once. I played it at the piano, recorded on my iPhone (thank you Voice Memo!), and ran to school to write it down in my staff book. Yes, I still write out all my compositions by hand with pencil and paper. It gives me a sense of permanence and safety if my computer ever crashes.
That was the end of March. Just the introduction was completed. I had no idea how to lead into the first verse, nor did I know how the rest of the verses would go. There were six verses in all and I needed to let the choir sing one or more of them, but it was not clear which ones. I was just happy I had an idea for the intro!
The end of the school year came and went – a blur of video games and video game soundtracks – but I think that was helpful. I knew I wanted a driving, rhythmic bass pattern to imitate a John Williams orchestral bass line (some have asked me after hearing "Mighty Deeds" when the stormtroopers were going to arrive!) and the driving, pounding, heroic music of Halo, Advent Rising, Final Fantasy VII, and Civilization IV were lodged deeply in my brain for months leading up to the WLA Spring Concert.
The end of the school year continued to accelerate until graduation day had passed and I could finally have longer periods of time to hear the music in my head. I've described the process of composing to some people as putting together a puzzle that you don't know what it will look like when it's done, with pieces that you don't know how they fit together, or how many there are. I had heard parts and snippets of "Mighty Deeds" in my head for a while and written them down in my staff book as a I heard them, but I still had no idea how they all might eventually fit together, or if I would use them all.
Luckily (by the grace of God!) my parents left for a week long driving trip to visit my brother in Florida and their house was free. It was the quiet place I needed to finish "Mighty Deeds"! And by the grace of God I was able to finish the work and get it sent off to the planning committee of the Worship Conference – one day before the orchestra parts were to be sent out to the volunteer orchestra!
I was very nervous to hear the first orchestra rehearsals last week, not knowing how the orchestra would take to my composition. It wasn't exactly typical Lutheran church music like Hillert, Schalk, Bunjes, or Moldenhauer! I left the first and second orchestra rehearsals very happy with their progress and Dr. Moldenhauer's ability to capture the spirit of the piece and my compositional intentions. I missed the dress rehearsal, but that was ok, it made the festival concert performance that much more spine-tingling for me! I had two digital recorders with me, and captured the recording at the beginning of this post from the aisle about six rows back from the orchestra.
|First orchestra rehearsal of Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds|
in the Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN (7/18/11)