All posts by Matt Cook

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 14, Morten Lauridsen (or, the Final Two Albums that Helped Me Survive Grad School)

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

And so we’ve reached Day 14 of the 14 Songs in 14 Days challenge. Not to worry—it’s not over yet! As I haven’t been following the rules (oh wait, there weren’t really any rules!) SO far like posting my list to Facebook like the folks that challenged me to do this thing…limiting myself to 14 songs…posting for 14 days (oops, missed a few there!) Based on my count of things/events left just from my quick idea dump in my journal, I probably have another 6–7 posts left in this series. No promises that I’ll keep posting every day, but I’ll do the best I can. The end of the semester approacheth, after all…

At any rate, if we learned nothing else from this exercise—music is clearly of the utmost importance to me.

This evening’s music is drawn from the more challenging choral works from Morten Lauridsen—a composer who is known as the most-performed American choral composer. EMU was supposed to be hosting Lauridsen for our annual Composer-in-Residence/Invitational Choral Festival this month, and we’ve been singing a few of his better known compositions through the year like “Sure on this Shining Night” and “O Magnum Mysterium.”

My love of Lauridsen’s music, like several others from this series, goes back to the UTM choral program days, when we sang “O Magnum,” “Dirait-on” and maybe a couple others during that time. I loved Lauridsen’s compositional language (though I wouldn’t have phrased it so elegantly back in the day): florid, passionate, fiery, powerful. So many exceptional, skillfully written works from Lauridsen. My brother-in-law (also a choral music nerd) had an album of several of Lauridsen’s songs recorded by Nordic Chamber Choir. I’m sad to not have been able to meet him this month; he’s not exactly young, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the chance to do so now.

Following undergrad, I put on my Amazon wishlist a couple of CDs of Lauridsen’s major works recorded by the professional English choir Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton. I think I got both of them for Christmas soon into grad school (I remember getting one for certain from Karen’s mom!), but for some reason didn’t commit to listening to them right away. [It sometimes can be a commitment to really dig into a new album, especially when expectations are high and you know you’ll really want to listen closely.] Then at some point after the two CDs mostly lived in my Toyota Tacoma’s center console for a while (possibly years…) I finally got them out and listen to both. I was subsequently blown away. I knew Lauridsen from his stand-alone pieces like those listed above, and “O Nata Lux” that I had sung with the KCC sextet mentioned yesterday (and that piece is from a larger set, but I didn’t know it). But I didn’t know the full depth of genius in Lauridsen’s writing until I listened to his major works, Lux Aeterna and Mid-Winter Songs. The EMU Choir was supposed to be learning Lux Aeterna for a concert at Orchestra Hall with Lauridsen at the keyboard, I believe was the idea. The idea of missing that experience still has me a bit messed up, so I’m not giving you the YouTube video embeds for that one…you’re on your own.


It’s getting to be a little late for the Mid-Winter Songs now that it’s early spring 2020, but if you can stomach being seasonally inappropriate for a bit, give this ~20 minute work a listen. Unfortunately, it seems that album by Polyphony isn’t available online that I could find (and their version is with orchestra—really, far more powerful), but the piano-accompanied version still gives you a taste.

The way Lauridsen brings this work to a conclusion here by coming aural full-circle to much of the same/mimicked material from the first movement never fails to stop my in my tracks. Ughhhhhh I love it so much……

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 13, Everything King’s Singers (or, Yet Another Way I stayed Sane in Grad School)

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Tonight I have given myself the near-Herculean feat of trying to pick out the “one song” (lol, yeah right!) from the King’s Singers, the British ensemble I had sort of heard of in undergrad via singing a Beatles tune from one of their famous arrangement books. Karen even had one of their more unusual (for them)’90s albums with almost entirely pop songs and (gasp) orchestral accompaniment that we’d listen to every now and again. I had a gist of an idea that they were really popular because they classically trained singers who could also sing close harmonies well, even adding jazz and pop songs into their repertoire. [Turned out, it’s a bit more than that, but not a bad start to understanding their importance!]

But it wasn’t really until moving to Knoxville, starting grad school (which included a 10–15 minute commute to school by myself on a regular basis), and discovering some used King’s Singers CDs at McKay’s Used Books that I became obsessed (I now own something like 8-10 of their albums; not all are scanned in to my iTunes because the CDs living in the SUV and I’ve listened to all of a few more for free thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime Music).

This was, of course, around the same time as I was expanding my choral music horizons through my musical involvement all around Knoxville (discussed in the previous three posts), but the King’s Singers really pushed me in new directions, as I took a quick liking to singing in the countertenor range. My [reasonably good] success in that department actually began because the annual spring Knoxville Chamber Chorale concerts at St. John’s Episcopal always included some solo and duet numbers mixed in with the choir’s repertoire (to extend the concert time but also provide the choir with breaks beyond an intermission). In one of the early years—2011 or 2012, can’t remember which—one of the baritones got together a group of three tenors and three basses with the idea of pulling off some TTBB version of the King’s Singers “You are the New Day.” I’m not sure he intended for it to happen, but he gave us music for an SATB version and I attempted to sing the top soprano part in the first rehearsal without being a complete screw up, and we then decided another of the baritones (who also had a nicely developed upper falsetto register) could attempt the alto line.

[Thus began my brief, Knoxville-based career as a countertenor, where I sang with this small group a handful of times, and also went on to sing countertenor with the men’s early music/chant schola Orison, and even sang alto on Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices at a special service for a Catholic church, after having been recruited for that by one of the UT music profs. Alas, I haven’t had more than a couple of opportunities to use the countertenor range since moving to Michigan, aside from a couple of times filling in one of the alto parts at Mariners’…and you know what the say: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Or in my case, replace it with a much more developed lyric tenor register—so much so to the point where it’s actually become more difficult to “float things” and blend in choir settings now. I’m starting to get it…]

Anyway, back to the point! Although my love of the King’s Singers has not diminished, I’m afraid to say that around the time I finished up grad school also happened to coincide with the time when “my” King’s Singers (the six gents who comprised the group in the albums I had, from the ’90s to the early 2010s) started to retire from the group, so much now that I went to their website earlier this evening, and I hadn’t even realized they’ve replaced another counter-tenor and a baritone in the last year. My level of obsession through grad school was such [I feel like a teenager talking about movie stars or something…] that when Paul Phoenix [*gasp,* “oh no!”] and David Hurley [devastating!] left the group in 2014 and 2016, respectively, the group just didn’t feel like the same ensemble to me anymore.

So all that said, I give you some (just a taste, really) of my favorite recordings by the King’s Singers of yore (unlike a lot of previous posts, they haven’t composed much of a musical output, but it’s their specific, British-male-ensemble blend that has made their fame).

First up, the version of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” from the 1992 album Good Vibrations. This was another of the pieces (with “You are the New Day” and Lauridsen’s ” O Nata Lux”) performed with the male sextet in KCC. Just look at YOUNG Hurley and (bass who looks like Mr. Bean) Stephen Connolly are!
And now a live performance, “La peregrinacion,” which is nicely set up in the video by Connolly. Also, if I’m not mistaken—I believe this is recorded in the rehearsal/broadcast space of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?? If not, it looks a LOT like it—EMU Choir just sat in on a rehearsal on our 2020 West Coast Choir Tour. Wait, nevermind—that last pull back shot [4:07 mark] shows a crowd WAY larger than can fit into the space we saw in Salt Lake City…)
First track of the King’s Singers brilliant 2011 collaborative album with René Clausen’s Concordia Choir, I listened to this entire CD in the truck driving around Knoxville I’d be surprised if it still plays (don’t worry, I also have it copied to iTunes…) “Oculi Omnium” is not commonly found used in Latin, though translated it’s more well-known version in the English singing world would be in multiple settings (including my favorite by Jean Berger) of “The eyes of all wait upon thee.” This particular version was specifically composed for the King’s Singers by former member Bob Chilcott.

One last one before we go—the YouTube video that perhaps made me realize the King’s Singers sheer brilliance and nicely representative of what the group has been doing for decades now (the ensemble recently celebrated 50 years! not all the same singers, naturally, but the same spirit…)

These last two, I just realized, really are more old school King’s Singers… the new group still does some humorous stuff, but it seems like when they aren’t doing traditional classical genres, they mainly stick to pop and jazz like most mainstream a cappella groups these days. No wonder the group doesn’t really feel the same anymore. The humorous stuff, especially the parts where singers mimic instruments, has a clear descendance from MUCH earlier groups like the Comedian Harmonists, a group I learned about in undergrad German class of all things!

Juuuuuuust kidding. I can’t let you go without this one, too….😁

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 12, Knoxville Choral Society and Exploration of the Master Work

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Good afternoon—or at least, 6:30 pm EDT basically feels like the afternoon when your sense of time is distorted beyond reasonable hope of recovery!

I missed out on posting yesterday after once again having a few too many things left on the to do list by the end of the evening [if there’s one thing I’ve excelled at during this Coronavirus isolation it’s making lengthy lists to check off in my journal…hope I don’t run out of pages, because I can’t get back into the office at school to retrieve the next one without jumping through approximately all the hoops…] On top of all that, I had to get up early (ok… 8 am) for a faculty meeting on Zoom at 10. Woo. Besides that, this series is clearly looking like it’s going to end up at more like 21-or-so-days/I’ve-already-lost-count-of-the-number-of-songs, so we’ve got to pace ourselves, right? There doesn’t appear to be an end to the quarantine in the imminent future anyway.

Picking up where we last left off, I wanted to talk today a bit more about my time in the Knoxville Choral Society, since I focused most of the last post on the Knoxville Chamber Chorale. In that post, I wrote a bit about how we auditioned for the group right near the cut off to start the season, but then it took a little time after getting in to get used to/comfortable with how a large community choir operates. That seems strange to say that now that I’ve been singing in large community choirs for going on 10 years now…wow! But these kinds of non-profit arts organizations—found in cities and towns all over the country, mind you, but with quite varied levels of success and stability—are entirely different beasts in terms of how they operate compared to what younger singers are commonly used to singing in/with (namely, school and possibly church/religious choirs).

Looking back on the six years as a whole, I’d have to say that my most favorite aspect of singing with KCS would have to be the many, many times we sang major choral works with KCS (frequently in collaboration with the Knoxville Symphony under the artistic direction of Maestro Lucas Richman for most of those years) and our other collaborations with the KSO such as the annual Clayton Holiday Concerts in December. It didn’t always seem like it at the time—usually, it felt like we were always in need of maaaaaaybe one more week of rehearsal, but I’ve since found out that it nearly always seems that. The concept of over-rehearsal is nearly a mythical beast in this world…

So in my survey of the major works the group performed during that time, I thought it might actually be fun to list them—not to show off or anything, but to look back proudly on hard work accomplished…this is not a skill that many musicians excel at. [So often we’re off from one gig to the next; always chasing the next shiny thing.]


  • Beethoven, 9th Symphony
  • Mozart, Coronation Mass


  • Handel, Zadok the Priest
  • Handel, ‘Utrecht’ Jubilate Deo
  • Eleanor Daley, Te Deum
  • Duruflé, Requiem


  • Verdi, Messa da Requiem
  • Bach, Magnificat
  • Handel, Messiah


  • Vaughan Williams, Mass in G Minor
  • Schubert, Mass in G
  • Dan Forrest, Requiem for the Living


  • Dvořák, Stabat Mater
  • Brahms, A German Requiem (Eng.)
  • Clausen, Memorial


  • Rutter, Te Deum
  • Poulenc, Gloria

It’s entirely possible, too, that I may be missing one or two…and this list doesn’t include a work for major forces (large choir, orchestra, and 5-piece folk band) that the KCS commissioned, John Purifoy’s The Blue and the Grey, around the time of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Of all of these, the one that probably stands out the most as influential or life changing would have to be performing the Verdi Requiem with the KSO in April 2013. I’ve now sung it (the choral bits anyway; I’d love a crack at the tenor soloist at some point in my vocal career…) twice, getting the chance to perform it in 2019 in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall with the combined forces of the Detroit Concert Choir, Oakland Symphony Orchestra, and Oakland University Symphony Chorus and Madrigal Chorale under the direction of Dr. Mike Mitchell. As my first time singing in Orchestra Hall, that concert, much like the one with KCS/KSO, will not soon be forgotten.

I leave you with a recording of the entire Verdi Req. from a live performance at the 2011 Proms. The introduction to the video and subsequent short biographical/interview parts at the beginning says what I would say about why the masterwork is so important—the combination of Verdi’s operatic writing with the religious text for the Requiem mass has created something so powerful that it ranks as one of the most performed major work (at least requiring choral forces), right up there with the Mozart Requiem as well.

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 11, Songs Sung with the Knoxville Chamber Chorale

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Good evening! Tonight, I bring you three gems that are representative of my time singing with the Knoxville Chamber Chorale (KCC), the small/select ensemble of the larger Knoxville Choral Society (KCS, more on them, likely tomorrow!).

Karen and I sang with both ensembles all six years we lived in Knoxville, although we originally only barely found out about the KCS in time to audition after moving in July 2010. We had sort of had a community choir experience in Martin under the direction of Dr. Mark Simmons (there were fits and starts like a lot of small community arts organizations trying to get off the ground) but it didn’t initially occur to us to look for a community choir when we first moved. We settled into a church choir fairly quickly, and then I think it was Karen who decided to look into if there other choir opportunities in the area. My semester hadn’t quite started yet (or was just about to) and even though we missed the two official audition dates, we emailed the address listed on the website and explained our interest and were given auditions on the first night of rehearsals. I’m ever so glad we found the group—even through many changes and many miles apart now, the KCS is still family, and we try to meet up with folks from the ensemble for dinner whenever we visit Knoxville to see my parents.

Singing in the Chamber Chorale was a quite different experience from singing the larger ensemble, which usually ranged from 60–100 singers depending on the concert. Chorale, however, ranged from maybe 24 when we started to around 30 the year we left. The group’s musical focus was delightfully varied: we were at home performing major historical composers (Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schubert all come to mind) but also contemporary composers like Whitacre, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Daniel Elder, David Conte, Z. Randall Stroope, etc. This was in part to the group’s flexibility and also due to changes in director. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and blessed to have had the fortune to sing under the batons of the late Bill Brewer, Dr. Eric Thorson, and Dr. John Orr. The pieces for tonight are representative of the kinds of variety that endeared KCC to me.

First up is a return to some Eric Whitacre, about whose music I wrote quite a bit the other day, and his Seal Lullabye, which I performed for the first time in one of the earlier years with KCC. I listened to this song SO many times when grad school was tough…between that and listening to the King’s Singers and some Morten Lauridsen, I not only survived grad school but also got the wheels starting on what would eventually become my rethinking of being a professional musician.

Second is a piece by Anton Bruckner, somewhat lesser-known I suspect (and tragically so, I would argue—more choirs should be acquainted with his choral works): Os Justi (1879). The song, though relatively short at only 69 measures, nonetheless requires a well-trained choir to perform (and stay in tune…), dividing in spots to 8 parts a cappella.

Finally, I’m closing out tonight that’s important for many reasons, but tops among them is that it was my re-introduction to VOCES8, a group I saw live in 2009 at ACDA Oklahoma City, bought one of their albums and loved it for a while but then subsequently largely forgot about. We performed their arrangement of Ben Fold’s The Luckiest on my last concert with the Chamber Chorale—emotionally loaded enough as that is— but then, serendipitously, was also the re-introduction of the group to Karen, who has just finished her year as one of the VOCES8 US Scholars and is now great friends with the current roster of VOCES8…it’s kinda amazing. We also had a chance to hear them sing again on a concert at Western Michigan last fall. Life-changing stuff.

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 10, Church Street and the Fauré Requiem

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Tonight we transition from West Tennessee to the charming East side of the state, where I lived for six years while in grad school at the University of Tennessee. This move, in addition to being the beginnings of my real professional training as a geographer, was also in many ways the beginning of a transition to an enriched and deepened appreciation for classical music, thanks to combined forces of singing in the Church Street United Methodist Church parish choir and the Knoxville Choral Society/Chamber Chorale [more about that later in the series].

Thanks to my involvement in these two larger arts/arts-supporting organizations (and eventually involvement in a few other choirs and special concerts that spun off from these two), one of the main themes of my musical growth from this period was my eyes being blown WIDE open by performing many many choral masterworks. I could give you a laundry list (there were a lot, like I said), but those are already all listed on my music resume. Within the first couple of years in Knoxville, I had already sung such marvelous works as Beethoven’s 9th with KCS and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb with Church Street at Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, and tonight’s chosen masterpiece—I had no idea what an impact this would make on me emotionally, and how long the music would stay with me, right up to the present since we performed it near annually at my current church gig at Mariners’ Church of Detroit— Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem.

It’s a long one…so you could be forgiven for not listening to the entire thing tonight! I like this version, however, because 1) it’s performed by The Cambridge Singers, Members of the City of London Sinfonia, John Scott (organ) under the direction of John Rutter, and 2) it has the score so you can follow along and learn a thing or two.

More on this tremendously important six-year period of my life over the course of the next post or two! Hard to believe we’re already on Day 10.

Bernstein—Maria (From West Side Story)

[And now for your regularly scheduled interruption from the 14 Songs in 14 Days blog series, er…something]

I’m not super happy with how it turned out, so I’m not adding it to my normal Recordings Page and inevitably it can get buried into all the other blog posts here…but, inspired by so many others on all my social medias who have been cranking out music and artistry in the absence of normality during the COVID-19 pandemic isolation period, I’ve recorded a (new-to-me) song: “Maria” from West Side Story.

Like I say, I’m not super pleased with it, but I’m at least done editing/messing with it so instead of just trashing it, I’m putting it out there into the void for you to maybe enjoy!

Here’s what I learned from this process:

1) Attempting to make music during a quarantine, even if you’re not fully satisfied with it, is still a useful process and a good way to distract yourself from everything else going on. Good for mental health, good to keep honing your craft, good that we turn to art in times of trouble. So if you’re reading this and have the ability to—go make some music. If not, at least go listen to some!
2) It’s not impossible to sing and make recordings without live accompaniment of any kind, but it’s a heck of a lot harder. Trying to synchronize the vocal recording takes (there were at least four or five) with the piano accompaniment was not at all easy without the pianist in the room! For this project—inspired by the ways that our EMU voice studios been adapting voice lessons to Facetime and Skype with recordings of our accompaniment recorded on cell phones by our usual collaborative pianists—I went on YouTube and searched for piano accompaniment to “Maria” from Bernstein’s West Side Story….and because I’m terrible, I’ve forgotten to give that person attribution in the MP3! Dang. Well, for those of you reading here, I found it from an Italian pianist, composer and YouTuber named Marco Velocci. Go check him out!
3) All that to say: you’ll be able to tell on the recording that syncing the voice with the piano was troublesome. There’s nothing like not being able to have voice lessons or rehearsals in person to make you all the more grateful for when they DO happen—so thanks to my regular collaborative pianist, Mark Loring, and voice professor, Dr. MeeAe Nam!
4) I made some weird vowel choices [in my native language of ENGLISH, mind you…] that didn’t even occur to me until I thought I was ready to start editing, and after I heard them I was mad but didn’t really want to record yet another take.
4.5) Relatedly, it’s really difficult for me to record at home in the office when you have to compete with dogs and Karen (and even the wind chime…good grief!) for background noise. I got most of these takes in while Karen was outside cutting wood for a garden bed or something. I can’t imagine how torturous this whole process must be for other voice students such as those at EMU who are having to (or will have to soon) record themselves at home singing along with the piano backing tracks in lieu of their final jury. Blah.
5) Attempting to edit sound files with my usual method of using Audacity (which I’ve used to edit sound files for Karen to use with auditions for several years now) is increasingly obnoxious… The program crashed more than a handful of times while working on editing this all together, which shouldn’t be that hard for a relatively small, ~3:00 minute song with an imported MP3 track and a few recording tracks using a YETI USB microphone. Fortunately, I didn’t lose much each time it crashed, except for pieces of my sanity and soul…
6) … and finally—when this process was nearly complete, as in yesterday during editing, I remembered that I have EMU Faculty access to the entire Adobe Creative Cloud including Adobe Access, one of the top sound/music editing software programs on the market…brilliant. So I have it downloaded now. Sorry Audacity, but… there’s only so much I take with you!

Finally: here ya go! Here’s hoping you don’t completely hate it!

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 9, The Later College Choir Years

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

This evening’s post is largely a continuation of yesterday’s writing about my undergraduate college choir days, so I’m leaving you with less text to wade through tonight… No spoilers, but I’ve got a different musical project simmer on the back-burner that I’m itching to get back to!

So, without further adieu, here are three more exquisite songs from the UTM University Singers/New Pacers time in my life. [Actually, I looked it up because I still have old tour program booklets! All of these were from the 2007–2008 years, and all were performed by New Pacers…guess they were more challenging/suitable for the chamber choir.]

The first of these is the last movement (No. 10) “There’s a Time to Live” from less-well-known (in the US, anyway) New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod in her modern masterpiece Childhood (1981). The work, deceptively complex, sets texts from the perspective of children written by the composer. While we initially set out to perform the entire work, we eventually settled for a handful of the movements, including “There’s a Time to Live,” which brings the set to a natural conclusion. There aren’t many recordings of the work, at least as stand-alone videos on YouTube, so here’s an MP3 recording of the movement from an album of the entire work performed by the New Zealand National Youth Choir.

The second piece on the docket tonight: an absolute classic! John Rutter’s Hymn to the Creator of Light. I had a difficult time choosing between this and the Rutter Gloria, which we performed with…I want to say the Jackson Symphony’s brass section and organ? freshman year. I went with Hymn to the Creator of Light because I’m guessing you my readers are less likely to know it, hmm?

One more to round out your evening listening (I’m sure that’s what you’re doing, right?) I chose this one because Karen and I still sometimes talk about it…it was that transformational at the time. One of (it not the) first times singing in a language outside the normal European canon (ENG, FRN, GER, ITA, Latin, and occasionally Russian or Swedish or Estonian if you’re lucky…) and in a very non-Western modality! Commissioned by Chanticleer, Jackson Hill’s In Winter’s Keeping has a Japanese text and employs a number of Japanese-inspired musical ideas/motifs, though Hill himself is American.

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 8, The Early College Choir Years (or, When Things started Getting Serious)

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

We segue today into the back-half of this 14-day series (though again, it may go longer than that—I certainly seem to have enough music to keep it going for a while!), where I think you’ll find the overall tone (no pun intended) of the music shifts more serious, particularly driven by my college-found love of choral music.

College choir in my undergrad was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. I had decided near the end of high school to largely give up on playing the trumpet because having braces really sapped a lot of the joy of playing. It was this, combined with not being sure how I could make a living being a musician aside from teaching it (which I didn’t really see myself doing), that led me to be drawn to sign up for the UT Martin University Singers, the ensemble open to all on campus. It certainly helped that my sister was a music major and I’d gone to a few of her choir concerts while I was still in high school, and it definitely didn’t hurt that a cute girl named Karen from Jackson was going to be a music major and in the choir, too… (Yes, I can safely/largely attribute our relationship starting to choir, particularly choir tours.)

But then we started singing. And wow. It was…something. It wasn’t always perfect, it was sometimes a struggle to be artistic, but at its best (when we really did what Dr. Mark Simmons asked), there were so many life-changing, stunning moments. The music from the first couple years (Fall 2005–Spring 2007) included some of the most important choir music of that era and of all time: Samuel Barber, Eric Whitacre, Eleanor Daley, Mendelssohn and Bach and Haydn… it was a veritable choral music education. I still remember the feelings of making the auditioned chamber choir, the New Pacer Singers, which meant I was double majoring and working a part-time job (eventually, two 20-hour “part-time” jobs on campus when I started at the newspaper sophomore year) but I made both choirs work to the best of my ability. There was one semester or so where I had a class conflict with University Singers but still learned the music. I graduated in 2009 and Karen still had a year left, so on relatively short notice I learned the baritone music after a guy dropped for the 2010 tour. Choir wasn’t exclusively my life, but close!

The music from the first two years that really set me on my path to loving choral music as I do today was, perhaps clichédly of course, largely the music of Eric Whitacre. In my four years at UTM, we performed “Sleep,” “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” “When David Heard,” (which is so long it just simply isn’t performed all that often—seriously…good performance tempos yield versions 15–17 minutes long), “i thank you god for most this amazing day,” and I want to say we might have sung “Water Night” with a high school festival choir that Dr. Simmons was conducting. In the later years we also sang “This Marriage” and “5 Hebrew Love Songs,” and these last two Karen and I asked the New Pacers to sing at our wedding. From those first couple of years, it was Sleep, When David Heard, and Leonardo that just captivated me.

For all these songs tonight, I’m giving you some top-notch recordings, in particular starting with the Eric Whitacre Singers (his own hand-picked choir, so you know this is the kind of sound he’s looking for with his own music!) Sadly, none of these are of the UTM Choirs from that era.

Beyond the peak-Whitacre-era obsession (I grew up/more eventually…😁) I was completely enthralled by perhaps the most challenging and technically demanding set we sang in those first couple years, Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations, a musical setting of Irish poetry from James Stephens (1882–1950). If you’ve never heard Reincarnations, you have to listen to them. They are challenging. They are chilling. They were, at the time, the hardest music I had ever learned—and it took a lot of work to get the three movements down.

The last piece from this time period that was incredibly meaningful at the time was my first sung Requiem, by contemporary Canadian composer Eleanor Daley. This piece we performed on our 2005 Tennessee with UTM voice faculty member Dr. Amy Yeung, whose voice I thought was surely that of an angel. I was fortunate enough to have a little spare time later in college to study with her for one semester.

{Edited to update because I remembered that the first time we performed all of this on the 2005 Tennessee tour was at Knoxville’s Church Street United Methodist Church. Little could Karen and I have imagined at the time that just a few years later we would join that church and sing in its choir from 2010–2016!}

Not a perfect recording (there’s some skipping like it was ripped from a CD), but it has the score, which is a nice feature if you’re a choral singer listening for the first time and you’d like to follow along.

I spent a lot of my life in grad school (particularly when frustrated with some difficult social theory or with writing a dissertation…) wishing that I’d just pursued music in college, but now with the perspective of added time, I find that I’m happy where I’ve landed with a double-life as a (decently paid) geographer and (as of yet, not fully employed…) singer.

More great choral music (well, mostly…) to come, friends.

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 7, The One in which Downhere’s Music is Still Incredibly Relevant

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/ isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

Today’s post covers (shocker) not just one song, but one of my favorite bands of all time. I’ve chosen them because their entire song output is really well done and is still incredibly relevant, especially now during our current Coronavirus quarantine.

That band would be the Canadian Christian rock group downhere (they stylize it fully lowercase; don’t shoot the messenger!) I mentioned in previous posts about my musical upbringing, a long-standing interest in CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) but how those tastes have changed over time, and also about the multiple bands I’ve been in. Come to think of it, I failed to ever mention that my bass guitar playing also got me into several “praise and worship bands” over time, including the high school praise band at church, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry band at UTM, and that group eventually morphed into ByGrace, which was semi-independent and played various events and services throughout Northwest Tennessee from about the middle of college up until I left for grad school. But throughout all that time (going back to high school), it seemed that hardly anyone I knew with an interest in CCM had any clue who the group downhere was…which was a crying shame. Perhaps it was because they were from Canada, eh? (That joke’s more funny when you live in Michigan, I promise…)

I think I actually “was subjected to” (as in, their music was played on a bus trip somewhere with the the church high school youth group and I just happened to be paying attention) their first album, the eponymous downhere (2001), which the youth pastor had bought at some event in Memphis, I want to say. I’m ever so glad he did. After listening to that album several times throughout the rest of high school (the youth pastor must have been a fan, because it was a regular feature of bus trips!), I bought their first CD online (still a big deal in the early 2000s, children 😆) but kinda forgot about them for a year or so after I started college—more on my lengthy college music experience starting with tomorrow’s blog!

Then, completely randomly, one of my coworkers in UTM’s Instructional Technology Center had on a playlist of music that made me say, “Hey, is that the singer from downhere?!” To which he replied something to the effect of, yeah it IS downhere—how’d you know? At that point I realized that I’d somehow missed the fact that the band had released two more albums! Needless to say, I had to get caught up…and went on a downhere spending-spree and musical obsession that ended up lasting years. [While Facebook was still in its relative infancy, I even became friends with two of the band members (this was before public figures or celebrities/musicians could have Pages to “Like and Follow”), bassist Glenn Lavender and drummer Jeremy Thiessen!]

Side bar: I knew it was the lead singer (okay, there are kinda two co-singers in the band, but one who does more than the other...k?) Marc Martel because he has an incredibly distinctive voice—uncannily similar in timbre, range, vibrato, etc. to Freddie Mercury of Queen. So much so that downhere essentially went on hiatus because Martel auditioned for and was picked up by a Queen revival band Queen Extravaganza (sponsored by a surviving Queen band member) from 2012–2016, after which he then moved on to another Queen cover band, The Ultimate Queen Celebration. Crazy good.

The thing that drew me to Downhere’s music (and I own all six of the studio albums they released; they unfortunately went on an indefinite “hiatus” right after I finally got to seem the live for the first time in Knoxville, sometime around 2012) more than any other CCM artist was the depth of their writing and their complex musicality. Both of these attributes were particularly bold choices while the band was active (~2001–2012) because most CCM was moving in the opposite direction…more repetition of text and all-but-stripped of musical complexity (and that’s to say it’s necessarily for bad motives: many CCM artists work to write songs better suited for praise and worship services popular among many Evangelical denominations/churches with contemporary music services).

But downhere was better and more than that. They wrote narratives that were meaningful and complex; they had songs that are poignant; songs that were (and are) incredibly relevant to contemporary issues: reconciliation (“Reconcile”), personal struggle/depression (“So Blue,” “Raincoat” ), war, division (“1000 Miles Apart”), poverty (“Little is Much”), a certain vapid interpretation of Jesus common to some corners of America (“The Real Jesus”)…. it goes on. The group was simply brilliant and wrote well-thought-out music that the general public apparently just didn’t buy (seriously—the group won loads of awards but toured in a 15-passenger van for almost their entire time together…At one point early on they wrote a tongue-in-cheek song called “Rock Stars Need Money”!)

So, Matt, which songs should we listen to? (I’m glad you asked, but it’s hard to narrow it down…)

The song that perhaps had the largest influence on me…and was actually my morning alarm for years (first by using my MacBook in college and then when I eventually got an iPhone) is the song “Hope is Rising” from the 2009 album Ending is Beginning.

There are several more downhere songs you should listen to, right now in particular, because of their relevancy during the ongoing Coronavirus situation, as pointed out by one of the band members on Facebook recently. I’ll leave you with a few. Take some time (since you’re presumably reading this on a Sunday, right?) and listen to all, if you can.

14 Songs in 14 Days: Day 6, “What song is it you wanna hear?” FREE BIRD!

Recap: I was challenged by one of my friends in EMU Choir to participate in one of those “14 Songs in 14 Days” kind of things, where you list or discuss 14 pieces of music that have had a profound impact on your life! Seeing as to how I have an abundance of time on my hands that I’m using only semi-usefully to this point in the quarantine/ isolation, I figured why not step up my game a bit and use this challenge as the theme of a blog post series. For the entire series, click here.

After a brief hiatus last night from being just a little too busy trying to stay on top of being both an active professor teaching three (now) online classes to wrap up the semester AND be a music student with three-ish active classes on top of all that, I think we’ve got time to squeeze in one more fun song from the high school days before we move on to my college tastes.

As the title of this post gives away, that particular song would have to be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” I just learned tonight that the song title is actually TWO words… I’ve thought it was Freebird my entire life. Oops.

Start playing now... this is the super-long live version from the 1976 album One More for the Road. It has to rank as one of the best and most influential pieces of recorded rock'n'roll ever.

But…so why Free Bird, you might be asking yourself? My relationship to this song is about as complex as it gets.

The first time that I heard Free Bird, as far as I can remember, was actually not a recording of Skynyrd performing it, but it was in a field show by one of the larger marching bands in West Tennessee… I can’t remember which year (might have been my middle school days in the marching band) or which band (Cordova? Mumford? One that was WAY bigger than Westview and WAY out of our league.) So of course, the marching band version wasn’t the recorded version that ranges from 4:41 (single version) to 10-14 minutes (live, length depending on how crazy the guitar solos get, plus the sweet piano interlude sometimes included like the YouTube video above).

Eventually, though again, I can’t recall when, I finally heard the Skynyrd version…this was back in the day of dial-up Internet, Napster and Limewire (which I never used), and Kazaa (which…okay I did use…) so it wasn’t exactly easy to listen to specific songs right when you wanted them to (just keep that in mind, you youngsters!) unless you went out to Walmart and bought the album—and even then it wasn’t guaranteed they’d have a copy.

I heard the normal radio version and was blown away. Eventually the guys in the garage band (Whitehall) all listened to the 1976 live version that one of them owned (probably Paul, the lead guitarist) and we decided we needed to make it one of our early cover songs, along with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley.” These, in addition to the 6 or 7 songs we wrote ourselves, were our most successful, consistently practiced and actually played in public! I think we played Free Bird only once, the one year we somehow convinced teachers at Westview that we should be able to have live music for the annual field day…

So Free Bird is in my life as a song from the garage bands, but that’s just where it gets started.

For some odd reason (perhaps partly encouraged by the members of Whitehall, now that I think about it…) we got DJs to play Free Bird several times at dances like Band Banquet and Prom. It’s kind of a good fit for high school dance, honestly, because the music starts out as a slow ballad that’s easy to slow-dance to, but then it gets boisterous (for lack of a better term? Faster tempo—that’s what I’m getting at…) that’s better for…other styles of dancing? (I’m clearly not a dancer.) Not moshing…but whatever it is one who is largely uncoordinated does when dancing to faster-paced rock music. Anyway, it was a hit, it was romantic, and for some reason I seem to recall dancing to it (at least the slow part) multiple times when dating Sarah Roberts. (Cue the “awws”…lol!)

But the relationship with the song goes on even further, particularly after I went to grad school and came out on the other side a critical geographer and scholar. (Not to mention—during this time, I worked in a restaurant for a couple of years where the kitchen listened to Knoxville’s classic rock station 97% of the time, so we heard “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird,” “That Smell,” “Simple Man,” and “What’s Your Name” SO many times it started to drive me crazy…) More importantly, during this time (2012) I became more aware of Skynyrd’s use of Confederate iconography, in part because it was even a topic of a Cultural Geography seminar in a week on music. Without turning this into a critical geography post (because I’m writing this late at night, go figure!) suffice to say that like many things “Southern” including a lot of artists in the Southern rock genre—the realities are more complex than just simply throwing things out entirely. In this case that means being able to appreciate “good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll” like Free Bird while still being cognizant of a band’s political and cultural choices (and not always agreeing with them).

See you tomorrow…the next post will probably be something completely different!