Monday, February 8, 2010

How Cantus chooses the music we sing

On Wednesday of this week, the artists of Cantus will be doing a little programming...choosing the music we will perform. In this case it will involve choosing music for our 2010-2011 Touring Program 'Before Us'. With this program, we will be using American music to show how people that have come before us have found their 'American Identity'. In this program, William Billings' (1746-1800) 'Lamentation over Boston' will be paired with 'Gravedigger' from Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band). But how does Cantus get those two pieces into the same program?

First, the Cantus artists brainstorm themes and stories that we want to explore: along with 'Before Us' for 2010-11, we've also selected the theme of 'On the Shoulders of Giants' for our 2011-12 Touring Program. That title is derived from Sir Isaac Newton's quotation 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants', an obvious homage to the great thinkers that came before him. To Cantus' end, that means masterworks for men's voices by master composers: Liszt, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and more. But that's only a first half; the second half will speak of a different type of 'giants'--larger-than-life personalities and folk heroes like Frankenstein, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and Goliath, just to name a few.

But I digress. After a theme has been chosen, we then bring our favorite music, old or new, classical or more popular, to a meeting. For a Cantus program, good music is good music, and if it fits our theme and better tells the story, it goes on the program, even if that means pairing William Billings with Dave Matthews. Typically, we begin with about 100 pieces for each theme, submitted by all the singers. All pieces are listened to or sung through by the whole ensemble, and then fun really begins: discussing, eliminating, re-arranging, choosing, and finally, selecting a suitable program order for the chosen pieces. I would estimate it takes us 4-5 hours of meeting time to put together a program we all love and are excited to sing. It is a time-consuming process, and might look a lot like how the U.S. Congress works, but it is an extremely important process. Inevitably, every single artist in the ensemble has a piece they suggested on the program, and as we sing a program every night, we see that person's tastes and artistic sensibilities on stage. It also gives each artist a greater 'buy-in' into the musical process and overall product, invaluable for an artist-led ensemble.

By the way, Cantus loves suggestions from fans and audience members, so if you have a favorite piece or poem that fits our program themes, let us know. Comment on this blog post with your suggestions.

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