Processions and Passions – Tue 7 April 2020

Procession of Palms – Malcolm Williamson
Recorded by the Mastersingers

Music, like all art, tends to thrive on the energy of dialectic – that is, the inquiry real or implied into contradictions and their solutions. When death is both the most radical undoing and yet also the most soothing release – we have a dialectic. When a pandemic causes suffering and fear and yet also connects, strengthens and heals its survivors, same thing. When a work of art can be strangely beautiful and yet strangely disturbing it draws the mind of the onlooker into consideration of meaning and perhaps magic.

Perhaps no stop along the church’s year illustrates this in more striking relief than the dual-named Palm/Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week, exactly one week before Easter Sunday. It is a well-loved observance from the depths of Lent that juxtaposes the elation and excitement of the crowds that accompanied the young rabbi Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem with that rabbi’s ever bolder affronts to the Jewish establishment, the horror of his betrayal by one of his chosen, and his trial, suffering and death.

To take a more directly musical example, consider a familiar hymn text, which Australian-born one-time Master of the Queen’s Music set in his Procession of Palms:

Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp, ride on to die.
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.

– Henry Hart Millman (1791-1868)

What form majesty leads its bearer to death? How can anyone’s death be the harbinger of triumph over death and sin? Isn’t that paradox defined?

Here’s a way of looking at it – we have discussed recently the concept of liminality, the notion that it is only when pushed beyond comfort, beyond reason that we can begin to see beyond such assumptions as the permanence of death, the seemingly inevitable triumph of earthly power. How does a beloved become a betrayer? A king become a criminal? One’s triumphant procession become one’s march to execution?

In Williamson’s piece we see a uniquely British attempt to reconcile these diametrics, a piece that folds the great texts of the day into a vigorous, exciting setting that seeks to capture Israel’s euphoria at its inevitable release from Roman bondage through the promised Messiah, but which flows into a tapestry of diverse textures and emotions on the way to a thoroughly unsettling ending.

A Procession of Palms was never sung in my twelve years at St James’ Cathedral in Toronto, but I will always remember the solution arrived at by my colleague and mentor Giles Bryant; though the Palm Sunday liturgy always featured the great hymns, waving branches and choral Hosannas by the tradition’s pinnacle composers it always quietly imploded during and after the Eucharistic celebration with some truly sombre motet and the congregation’s singing of the Passion Chorale, and left the jarred congregation staring ahead on Holy Week’s journey to the cross with no way to go but forward.

It was only many years later during graduate work that I became initiated into such terms as dialectic and liminality. But as in the rhythms, chords and other sounds of my parents’ countless vinyl records that implanted themselves early in my mind only to be named much later when I learned music theory, early experiences such as Palm/Passion Sunday at St James’ indelibly fueled my love of church music long before I had the tools to speak of it philosophically. In this most unusual of Holy Weeks without services, choirs and organs I find myself feeling like that disoriented Palm Sunday congregation, and equally with no way to go but forward.


IAM: COVID-19 and Cogito Ergo Sum – Fri 3 April 2020

Greetings! From the basement web and audio/video studios of IAM in Georgetown Ontario, warm wishes for safety, sanity and hope through these trying times. Thank-you for following along with whatever part of this effort brings you here, and my warmest wishes for you and those around you.

I’ve always been a bit tickled at the unintended reference René Descartes made to us in “I Think, Therefore I AM,” and I was interested recently to read that this argument emerged out of a swirling sense of self-doubt about what, if anything, he could be sure of being true. Most of us today rarely harbour doubts about our own existence, but there is plenty out there posing as truth that we can (and should) doubt. Though Descartes went no further than verifying his existence by the fact that he had thoughts, I like to extend this idea to the self-evident truth that by thinking we can more credibly interrogate the truth than by not.

In view with the swirling landscape of COVID-19 news about us, I’ve been adjusting my activities at IAM better to fit circumstances and serve the constituencies that gather here. A couple of recent developments have suggested changes to the way things have been.

Firstly the final season performances of both the Georgetown Choral Society and the Marion Singers have joined the list of cancelled events and projects we all grimly accumulate in these sorts of times; this has released us a bit from any immediate need to prepare music without the benefit of rehearsals (!), but it does not erase the beauty and the interesting culture around the music in the organisations’ lives. Thus, Choral View Radio episodes continue to emerge for choristers’ and followers’ enjoyment, with a couple of changes.

In the case of The Georgetown Choral Society we will continue to dwell on the May 2nd program concepts and themes – the First Half of which was the subject of an hour-long episode released earlier this week. The cancelled concert, entitled “United we Sing: Songs of Love and Hope for Humanity” is only more compelling in the midst of a crisis – and even while the song is silent for a time, this will continue to be way I hope we as choir – like we as a species – can remain pointed.

In the case of The Marion Singers the loss of our June 6th concert at Jubilee United Church in Toronto is potentially a still greater blow. COVID-19 uncertainty and possible economic legacy may severely impact our ability to secure concert bookings for the fall, which in a normal year we would be booking already. Or, who knows, when public events resume we might have churches beating our door down to help them raise money! In any case with TMS I am taking the opportunity for a step back, and over the next eight weeks am sharing the four CD recordings Marion Singers made between 2000 and 2011 under then-Director Tony Browning. Besides a wonderful snapshot of our group under different direction these recordings are packed with beautiful a capella music, familiar and unfamiliar, that we can consider reinstating. Most of all I am looking at it as a celebration of a wonderful institution, with a bright future when the world is again ready for choirs to rehearse, and for them to meet with audiences in performance.

The biggest change here at IAM will affect the Rosedale Presbyterian Church CVR episodes… after two weeks of offering a diverse set of resources (including a special CVR episode) for home-bound congregants to use at will, we on the RPC staff have decided in time for Holy Week to switch to producing something more formal like a composite audio/video “Virtual Service” containing most the elements found in a typical RPC service – which, of course, includes lots of music. In order to do this we have turned our attention to the IAM YouTube channel as a platform to collect and share the six parts of the service, which will play in order as a Playlist. And to top it all off we will be promoting and holding a virtual coffee hour at 11:30 each Sunday using Zoom technology. None of this will replace the experience of gathering in our church, but it will serve during what, it now seems, might be months without the privilege.

Tuesday IAM Blog posts will of course continue, although the concept of the musical travelogue I had hoped they would be has a significant damper on it at the moment, since I’m neither travelling nor making much music… but if we can reach back for a moment to “I Think, Therefore I Am” – perhaps it suggests that all IAM needs to exist is a brain!


The Green Grass and Blue Grass – IAM Tue 31 March

Some years ago, as early middle-age was ramping up my interest in my Irish ancestry and my longtime love of Celtic music I stumbled across an intriguing album by iconic traditional band The Chieftains in which they journeyed to Nashville and teamed up with some of country music’s top figures. The album, called Down the Old Plank Road offered an interesting range of music which ranged from textbook-country with added Celtic instruments such as whistles and ullian pipes to classic Irish musical forms reincarnated across the Atlantic.

I had never taken much of a liking to, nor interest in country music, but the excellent performances, the historical connection from my recent interest in the history and culture of one line of my family (and tangentially my admiration for the 2000 Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou, its soundtrack and the recent rise of interest in American Roots music they helped spark) had my attention. While doing my Masters in Music Criticism I wrote a paper on a McLuhan reading of the transformation of ‘old time’ music through 20th century urbanisation and industrialisation into the nostalgic and even glitzy modern country music – and then back to its roots; I studied the rise and evolution of popular music through the advent of recording, broadcasting, and the tortures of World Wars and festering post-slavery racial tension. I started a Celtic band, Chroí which is still playing today after eight years. I toured Ireland with a choir, cementing the land and its music – wherever it should wander and take me along – within my musical mind.

And then in 2013, in an unusual moment in my career as a freelance choral musician, along came Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, completing yet another circle, to my long knowledge of and relationship with church music, in what had already for me become its ever broadening circles.

Back in Nashville, the Chieftains reached into the shared culture of the connected people of the Old and New worlds, and found among other connections the “Come all Ye” ballad, common to both. An excellent example is found in the 1947 Merle Travis coal-mining classic Dark as a Dungeon – in it the balladeer, having summoned the listeners with the famous opening words “Come all ye…” warns of the dangers of a life spent mining coal (incidentally a common means of employment for Irish seeking work away from their native land). Another extraordinarily poignant example from the same album is Molly Bán, which warns of the prevalence of gun culture through relating the tragic tale of a man who shoots his beloved having taken her for a swan.

With the significant role played by Celtic peoples in the settling of the New World it is unsurprising that their folk idioms are evident in the new culture, but what has particularly struck me about the Irish American connection is its resilience, and visible presence in genres thought to be uniquely American.

As much of music making for me feels exclusively within the realm of ideas for this unusual quarantined moment I develop some of these themes in a currently postponed concert of the Georgetown Choral Society. Visit the page for the Choir’s episodes of Choral View Radio here on for a look at where that line of inquiry had taken me.


Posted in IAM.

Music at Home

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring,
performed by musicians of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from their homes.

As I announced last Friday I’ve made some temporary changes to under the unusual circumstance of self-imposed lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of most significance to this weekly blog post is that it is now temporarily detached from the Sunday Service music of Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto because, well, there are no Sunday services there. RPC’s Sunday worship ministry now consists of a set of materials distributed each Friday by the staff for the informational and devotional use of the congregation, including from me a special weekly 30-minute episode of Choral View Radio offering hymns, anthems, organ music and commentary – it is there, in spoken form, that you may find the nearest facsimile of the former RPC Music Notes – because again, there are currently no Sunday Bulletins to print them in.

In the past week of quarantine-based thinking and living, the online world of we unemployed, homebound musicians has virtually exploded with an entirely new genre of music-making… or is it entirely new?

While I’ve been throwing myself into homemade guerilla radio-like podcasts, in the past few days I have been contacted by an old university friend, Dave Kutz, who is currently Principal Tuba to the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, to collaborate online with he and a cellist friend who resides in Australia. On the suggestion of a member of Rosedale Presbyterian Church I and one of the church’s soprano soloists Rebecca Genge scraped together, from our respective homes, a rendition of the storied opera aria Bist du bei Mir by Heinrich Stötzel (which you might, along with many others, understandably think to be a sacred song by Johann Sebastian Bach). I see choirs, including Chorus Niagara and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus holding proto-rehearsals over video conferencing software platforms like Zoom and Skype, and the much better-tested (and better-suited) giving of one-on-one video music lessons, complete with household noises, pets walking by, sweatpants and unshaven beards. And perhaps most intriguing of all, we are seeing good-spirited daily compositional challenges – “fill your time by creating new music,” be that an original fiddle tune, a song about your experience, or that symphony you’ve never quite gotten around to writing.

Going beyond the fascination of seeing friends, colleagues, choristers and for that matter strangers in their natural habitats, for a professional musician there is something deeply humanising about sharing the imposed regime that is being variously called quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing, and shelter-in-place.

But it also reminds me that amid all of the impressive technology that simply didn’t exist a short decade ago, there is, ironically, a much older story being retold. The German term Hausmusik (‘house music’, a term we wouldn’t typically use in English) was in standard use in the late 18th century as the post-baroque rise of the middle class spurred families and friends to share music, sung or played, in their homes. The piano lay, and remained at the centre of this movement for a century and a half before the advent of recording and broadcasting, and the decline of institutionalised music education gradually shifted music-making into music-listening, and transformed the broadly-held urge and ability to play and sing into an anointed ‘priesthood’ increasingly conferred only upon celebrities and professionals.

Of course the images in my Facebook Feed of music at home are showing me something that existed before; we all practise, teach and sometimes even play or sing together in our homes – always have. But the unexpected explosion of sharing gives me another to add to the positive outcomes some hope of this pandemic such as environmental healing, the re-decline of incompetent and ignorant populism, socialised wealth-redistribution and the retooled non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure our planet so desperately needs. That hope is for music in the home; music in the heart.


Posted in IAM.

COVID-19 and Ideas About Music

Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton – some brightness and optimism for spring, and the theme music of IAM’s new Choral View Radio shows.

On this first day of spring at a most unusual time in our history I am making a unusual Friday post to the weekly blog. Followers and newcomers alike will want to know about some significant changes here at Ideas About Music in response to changing circumstances around the COVID-19 outbreak. I would first send out wishes to all readers and followers for health, safety and spiritual strength: we are all in need of these.

  1. With the suspension of public gatherings three choirs under my direction, the Georgetown Choral Society, the Marion Singers of Greater Toronto and the Choir of Rosedale Presbyterian Church are unable to meet, and either have already or will likely be cancelling performances / service offerings. I have reached into an old skill set and hauled out old equipment to create Choral View Radio, a tool intended to help choirs keep connected to the music we are working on, and to one another in the absence of meeting. I am producing a weekly 30-minute “radio show” format episode for each choir, all hosted right here at
  2. The suspension of Sunday Services at Rosedale Presbyterian Church, as a particular case of this, has generated a response from us on the staff to create a weekly Virtual Service Bulletin, a regular multi-media transmission of information (and we hope inspiration) intended to replace BOTH our usual print Bulletin, and the Sunday Service itself. My contribution to this has been to convert the Choral View Radio episode I might otherwise have created for the RPC Choir into a weekly curated episode that seeks to fold into 30 minutes two hymns, two anthems, an organ voluntary and in the form of spoken commentary, my Music Notes, as you might otherwise have read them here at
  3. With RPC’s Sunday Music Notes now having temporarily moved in spoken form to the RPC CVR episode, depending on my available time I will be taking the opportunity to think and write about musical topics outside of the church context, so you can continue to expect weekly submissions of some sort. I would encourage you, if interested to look into the three weekly CVR episodes as well – as you know or might guess about them, where I’m concerned if there’s music, the ideas flow fairly quickly around them!

The cover graphic/music for this post is Kaikki Maat, Te Riemuitkatte (‘All Nations, you must Reimagine’) by Finnish a capella supergroup Rajaton, whose name in their native language means boundless. It serves as the theme music for the three weekly episodes of Choral View Radio, but its character and the sentiments expressed by both the song itself and the band’s name are I think valuable to this moment in human history.

As I say at the close of each CVR episode, see you next week, stay safe, keep in touch with one another, look after one another and the people around you, and most of all, Enjoy the View.


Let me Know – RPC Music Notes, Sun 22 March 2020

Lord, let me know mine end (III, Ein Deutsches Requiem – Johannes Brahms)
– note, English translation in recording is slightly different than in RPC’s planned usage

As I write this on 16 March 2020 it seems likely that the Session of Rosedale Presbyterian Church will decide tomorrow (by socially-distanced telephone meeting) to join churches throughout Southern Ontario in suspending public worship as part of society’s broader effort to blunt the progress of the COVID-19 outbreak that is ravaging the world, already devastatingly in some places. Should this happen I hope these notes on what would have been this Sunday’s music become part of our self-isolated community’s life. As so often seems to happen music chosen weeks ago is taking on an eerie – or – perhaps divine – connection to the events unfolding around us.

Brahms’ German Requiem, a concert work largely unaffected by the centuries-old impulse to sing sacred music in a language understood by the listener, is heard most often by English speaking audiences in its original German. As we have journeyed through offering, literally piece-by-piece, this masterwork as part of our winter (and God willing, our spring) services the option has certainly existed to go with this norm – but so too in our Protestant sensibilities has the interest in offering our congregation music and meaning as one, without the abstraction of a printed translation. A discussion of the dynamics of this choice are for another day – today, let’s look squarely at its 3rd movement, made more vivid, perhaps, by the vernacular language, and certainly by the time in which we are hearing it.

The work’s third movement sets an unanswerable question “How long will I live?” answering only with the assurance that righteous souls lie in God’s hands (Wisdom 3:1) – slightly hollow, though set in a magnificent fugue composed entirely over the rock-firm grounding of a D-pedal point, suggesting God’s abiding presence and strength. But am I one of those righteous souls? Is my loved one? What about the unrighteous souls, however determined, and the communities we share? As our days begin to take on apocalyptic tones these matters may affect some of us more than others: to the unknowable future belongs the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and ourselves, but the questions it raises certainly seem closer than mere weeks ago.

In the unlikely event RPC gathers for worship this coming Sunday, the choir will accompany this disturbingly existential offering with a short, simple and strikingly personal prayer text, set in this instance by John Rutter.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

– Sarum Primer, 1558

If the assurance of Wisdom 3:1 in Brahms rings a bit hollow, this prayer strikes me (as it always does) deeply comforting. If God is in my understanding I can think and feel beyond my fear and anger. If God is my looking I can see clearly my correct course. If God is in my speaking I can offer words of wisdom and comfort when they are needed. If God is in my heart I can look beyond my own household, to a community, a species and a planet that ask, and should expect my commitment to their well-being. For me the final, and least immediately comforting petition seems to pale against the riches provided by the others to the situation in which we find ourselves – but that discussion, too, is for another day.

Today we live; today we work together.


Desolate – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 March 2020

Desolate is one of many words our language gained from England’s Norman conquerors in 1066. In English we tend to associate it with places, whereas its French antecedent desolée expresses more of a personal feeling of loss or regret. We see both meanings in today’s two choral selections, and we see two strikingly different musical portrayals.

The longing words of Psalm 42’s first three verses are in the voice of one spiritually bereft, perhaps feeling abandoned by God after daily mocking by those questioning his faith – perhaps questioning it himself all the while. The poetic image used is that of a thirsty deer longing for water, and Noel Rawsthrone’s musical depiction of this longing shifts sadly between solo and duet passages in weeping, descending melodies, and terse choral chant-like textures that bring the whole into the first person plural voice.

William Byrd’s anthem setting of Isaiah 64:10, Civitas sancti tui is a frank acknowledgment that the holy city has been made into a desert, a desolation.  The greater meaning here than the ‘mere’ physical destruction of the city cannot be understated: for God’s people Jerusalem forms the seat of faith, of power and of hope, a fact not lost on its Babylonian conquerors, now leading defeated Israel into exile. In the music, a short section expresses that simple fact, and then we hear Jerusalem and its more poetic name Sion along with the Latin words deserta and desolata repeated over and over in a strikingly serene, almost psychological way. As if to drive home the simplicity of this admission, the voices of the choir sound here for the first time homophonically, that is, at the same time rather than in alternation.

Rev. Kendall reminds us today of the sanctity of water – in the ancient world, yes, but no less in our own time and place: Canada, with its unparalleled wealth of fresh water continues to fail its First Nations in the provision of this basic life-critical commodity, and also faces the uncertainty of water sovereignty as its increasingly parched neighbour to the south increases pressure to have access within a deteriorating climate. Water gives life, gives sanctification through baptism, gives health, cleanliness and stability to individuals and nations – its loss is synonymous with desolation.

In March 2020 the world teeters on the brink of uncertainties such as a global disease outbreak and global climate emergency: let us remember that water, though plentiful in the way we know it, in many other places is already rare as music in the desert. Let us pray and work to maintain and remediate the people and places made desolate by us and our world.