Closer to Home - by Jeremy Van Buskirk
VOL. VII • 09/01/2016
This month’s installment of Composers’ Corner focuses on a piece that was premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of the 2016 New York Sounds of Spring international Music Festival: Closer to Home by Jeremy Van Buskirk. The piece was written for and premiered by the Youth Choir Permonik from the Czech Republic, and is for a cappella SSAA. The composer would like to thank Rev. David Horst and Dr. Petr Samojský of their help and guidance with this piece. He writes, “Without their generosity and support, this would have been a very different piece, and I would not have been able to find this text.” Closer to Home is one of those choral pieces that commands the audience’s attention from the first syllable to the last: the kind of heart-stopping music that results in utter silence after its performance. It opens with a gently undulating texture sung on the word “home,” taking advantage of your choir’s blend. Indeed, when I first heard it, I couldn’t tell which notes were sung by which part, and it seemed like many more than the mere four parts were present. Single notes and melodic fragments stand out of the texture, pulling the listener into its thick harmony. After this introduction, Norbert Čapek’s poem begins in earnest, taking us on a journey through one woman’s life as she contemplates how far she has come. The composer writes, “The text transitions beautifully from external imagery at the beginning, referencing the setting sun, trees, and the wonder that can be felt at twilight to the internal, personal feelings of the traveler’s joy. The anticipation of arriving at a place of peace at the end of the journey resonate with me. While writing this piece, I tried to express this sense of anticipation and feeling of wonder in the music. It’s the internal journey that dominates. The most joyful moments in the music are saved for the songs the traveler sings in expectation of her arrival.” Unlike many other choral pieces out there, this piece strikes a wonderful balance between polyphony and homophony, requiring contrapuntal precision one moment, and mass diction the next. The text is set in a natural, flowing way, without relying on constantly changing time signatures to align everything to the first beat of any given bar, which gives the music an almost conversational feel. Careful attention has been paid to the clarity of the text, so that even in the thicker contrapuntal sections, the listener is clearly able to understand every word, something remarkable given the four well-blended parts. Perhaps the most difficult part of learning this piece is the chromatic content: certainly, if a chorus was to approach this in an individual or a sectionalized way, the job is made even more difficult. What will no doubt make the piece infinitely easier is to be sure that all four parts know what the other parts are doing. For example, singing A-F#- C-Eb is difficult on its own, but if one notices that the Eb is already heard in another part, that yet another part has a G right before the F#, and that a B is heard a measure before the C, it becomes much easier. This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce your students to the concepts of score reading, voice leading, and listening across the ensemble to other parts. Were I conducting this piece, given the blend, I would even consider mixing up the chorus so that singers were intermingled instead of in their sections, thereby requiring them to hear specific notes as opposed to merely hearing a section. This piece has a wonderful sense of timing and overall direction as well. Indeed, many choral works focus on the sonority or line at hand, and rarely on where that sonority leads, or on the overall arc of the piece. Closer to Home, on the other hand, requires the chorus to start the piece already concentrating on its final destination, a beautifully transcendent, “I am going home.” The uninhibited joy of the final 8 measures is breathtaking, and will leave your audience in that wonderful place between enthusiastic applause and breathless amazement. Closer to Home is that rare piece that appeals to all of us on many levels. As a teacher, I look forward to sharing the challenge of this piece with my students; as a conductor, I can’t wait to share the beauty of the piece with my audience; as a listener, I’m left with tears in my eyes at the end; as a composer, I’m jealous that I didn’t write it.