New Year, new recording, part 3: “Advent”

Part three in a series on my new album, “Refracted Light.”

Introduction: I composed five chamber works based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. In 2017, I recorded the project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record these compositions: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, SpotifyiTunes and CDBaby.


The Crucifixion Window at St. George’s.

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the companion piece for St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018). I wanted to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine statements of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano.

Text for “Advent

When I see the cradle rocking
What is it that I see?
I see a rood on the hilltop
Of Calvary.

When I hear the cattle lowing
What is it that they say?
They say that shadows feasted
At Tenebrae.

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
Horror vacui.

“Advent” from The Back Chamber by Donald Hall. Copyright ©2011 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui,” but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.

In May of 2018, I presented “Advent” at the International Trumpet Guild New Works Recital with the original performers, Tia Wortham, soprano, and Ben Keseley, piano.

Below is a video of us recording “Advent” at St. George’s.

“Advent” was published in 2018 by Balquhidder Music. You can purchase the music here.

“Advent” was reviewed in the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians in October of 2019 by Jason Overall: Curtis “explores each impressionistic statement from a variety of perspectives, allowing listeners to follow along this journey. The music never abandons functional tonality, yet it has touches of sophistication that effectively undermine expectations. While piano is Curtis’s choice of keyboard instrument, the accompaniment could be adapted for organ quite well. Coloristic possibilities unique to the organ would more than make up for the timbral warmth of the piano. The aria may stretch the bounds of liturgical use, yet it would fit well within the confines of an Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols or other seasonal concerts.”

 

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New Year! New Recording, part 2: Night Passages

The Epiphany Window at St. George’s.

Part two in a series on my new album, “Refracted Light.”

Introduction: I composed five pieces based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. In 2017, I recorded the project in the nave of St. George’s, where I collaborated with some of my close musical colleagues to record these compositions: the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” This recording has just been released on the Arts Laureate label and is available on all major platforms like Amazon, SpotifyiTunes and CDBaby.

Note: The audio tracks for this blog have links for the Spotify platform. 


My Epiphany Window composition is derived from a concerto for trumpet and orchestra called Night Passages, which was my first multi-movement work for soloist and orchestra. The later version, recorded for this album, has only piano accompaniment, played wonderfully by Ina Mirtcheva, piano professor at George Mason University. I play three instruments: flugelhorn for the first movement, B-flat trumpet for the second and third, and piccolo trumpet at the end of the third movement. It presents three different perspectives from St. George’s Epiphany window, which is depicted at night. The first movement of my composition is called “Night Fall: What the Stars and Camels Say” which represents the beginning of the evening, as the sun goes down and then the stars come out; “Night Walk” presents a frightening nighttime sojourn, and is subtitled, “The Magi Journey by Night”; and, finally, a Latin dance setting transports us in the third movement, “Night Club; Dancing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

Night Fall” begins with overlapping melodies and some shimmering figuration, depicting a spectacular sunset. The introductory lyrical theme, played on flugelhorn, features the downward melodic interval of a third. This opening theme gets lower and the accompaniment gets darker until “stars” begin to appear. Then the main theme of this movement appears, which originally began as a melody written for my son, who plays violin, as a kind of lullaby. The cadenza, normally an unaccompanied part of a solo composition, here is accompanied by piano. This effect is intended to evoke an ancient poet punctuating his verse with the strumming of a hand-held harp. Although I did not directly borrow from his work, Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending was an inspiration for this movement. In addition, much of the material is derived from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and J. S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” from the eighth part of his Cantata 64. The melodic material from these two pieces, as well as the opening theme of this movement, gets reused throughout the other two movements.

The next movement, “Night Walk” opens with a short and frightening motive that frames the repetitive and initially-relaxed bass line, over which the trumpet plays long phrases, often interrupted by unpredictable outbursts. The bass line becomes more and more unstable until rhythmic and melodic chaos breaks out, representing a run from terror—possibly the fear that the Magi surely had of King Herod, or the panic Herod had when he heard of the prophecy of Jesus’ future as king of the Jews. After the framing motive returns, relative peace is restored to the end of the movement. Structurally, this movement traces the root structure of one chorus and the interlude of the tune “Night in Tunisia.” In general, each chord change in the original jazz standard is spun out over ten bars in my piece. Melodically, much of the material is drawn from the bridge of Gillespie’s composition, while incorporating Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from time to time. The movement finishes with the overlapping melodic sweeps (related to “Night in Tunisia”‘s interlude) that lead directly into the third movement.

After a short outburst from the piano, the trumpet introduces the melody in the third movement (“Night Club“), which is drawn from the main theme of “Night in Tunisia.” I used traditional Latin figurations, such as the Cuban “montuno” to make this movement feel like a salsa tune. The middle of the third movement makes a brief retrospective of the opening melody of the first movement before launching into a small baroque-like counterpoint section. At the end of this short movement, I switch to piccolo trumpet with a variation of the main melody played in harmony with the pianist’s right hand.

Below is a video of Ina and me recording “Night Club.”

 

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