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Crossing Over - An Interview with Matthew Guard

17 October 2016

Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Matthew Guard, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Jon Leifs, Sergei Rachmaninov, Sono Luminus, Crossing Over, Contemporary, Vocal

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Header image: Carolyn Guard

What awaits us at the end? What will our final hours feel like? What memories will flit through our consciousness? What dreams? What visions? What emotions will we feel? Whose is the last face we will see? What, if anything, will lie beyond? primephonic's Seán Ó Dálaigh spoke with Matthew Guard of the inimitable Skylark ensemble about their scintillating album Crossing Over. The album, released by Sono Luminus, poigniantly deals with the journey from life to death.

Can you tell us something of your musical background prior to your work with Skylark?

I grew up with music, as my mother taught piano (I foolishly rebelled against the instrument, a mistake that still occasionally haunts me in Skylark rehearsals!) I played trumpet in my youth, and sang in several choruses in high school, but it wasn’t until college that my focus on choral music really blossomed. I sang in the Harvard Glee Club and the Harvard University Choir. Though I wasn’t a music major, I took conducting classes with Jameson Marvin and my music theory course sophomore year was my favorite class in college. And to be honest, I spent more hours rehearsing and directing the Harvard Krokodiloes (a 12-man a cappella group) than I spent in class. After college, I honestly didn’t have the courage to pursue graduate education in music, but my wife and I stayed active, singing in the choir and scholar at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta for many years. But, I certainly came to this vocation with less experience than many – I have learned far more than I ever knew from my years facilitating Skylark, which is as rich a musical community as I can imagine.

Your programmes are clearly very intensively researched and well put together. What is your process for this research? Do you start with an idea (‘Crossing Over’ springs to mind) or is it a specific piece(s) which trigger the concept? 

As the director of a professional choir that can frankly do fantastic things without any kind of conductor, I feel like programming is my most important job. I do think it is a peculiar challenge to weave together a program that can keep someone riveted (or, let’s be honest, even actively listening!) for 60-odd minutes. Master composers like Bach and Rachmaninov did the work for us when they supplied compelling works that can fill an entire evening. But for many other fantastic pieces of the choral oeuvre that last a few minutes, it can be hard to find a home. What is the right context that can bring a piece to life? How can we provide the emotional impetus to allow a piece to truly sing? How can we get our singers and our audience to engage fully in a piece in a language that they do not understand?

Honestly, each of our programmes has come about in a slightly different way, and the process is organic and highly iterative. Sometimes a piece sparks an idea (Clear Voices in the Dark emerged from my passion to present Francis Poulenc’s Figure Humaine in a compelling context), in some cases a story necessitates a search for music (in Once Upon a Time we partnered with a storyteller to narrate classic fairy tales and I found short pieces to punctuate key points in the stories), and in some cases it is a hybrid.

Matthew Guard. Image: Molly Dwyer

Crossing Over was a hybrid that emerged from discussions around a few pieces. When we started talking about the first collaboration between Skylark and Sono Luminus, we were all drawn by the desire to capture Skylark’s unique sound, which I like to think of as “shimmery beauty, with a direct connection to the heart.” After agreeing on John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, Nicolai Kedrov’s Our Father, and Jon LeifsRequiem, the album concept essentially emerged naturally. Here were three pieces that all seemed to embody a state that one might call “end of life visions and meditations.” Once that idea crystallized, the search for the rest of the pieces on the album came into focus, and the album started to develop a narrative of its own.

‘Crossing Over’ is a very profound and moving album. Can you tell us more about it and whether there is a personal subtext? 

Though there was not a personal event that triggered the album, I have always been fascinated to hear that people who have had near-death experiences describe vivid images of what they saw and felt as they approached what could have been the end of mortal life. We may go through a similar experience as we prepare to leave this world for what – if anything – lies beyond. The pieces we have assembled on this album are a musical narrative on what that experience could be for each of us.

Crossing Over is not meant to be morbid or terrifying – in fact, some of the pieces are profoundly calm and beautiful. The overall experience of the album is a varied journey that attempts to capture the extremes of emotion that we might feel in a suspended dream state near the end of this part of our journey. On the opening page of the liner notes, I introduced the concept and what I hoped it would illuminate:

What awaits us at the end? What will our final hours feel like? What memories will flit through our consciousness? What dreams? What visions? What emotions will we feel? Whose is the last face we will see? What, if anything, will lie beyond?

Crossing Over is a window into our collective imagination, a musical narrative of what our final hours may feel like. 

Perhaps through imagining our last hours on earth, we can better prepare ourselves to face our time when it comes. Perhaps through imagining a fate we all share, we can better understand each other and our common bonds. Perhaps through imagining how we might feel when looking back on our life, we can focus more clearly on what we wish to do with each day that we have.

The voice is arguably the most personal of instruments. How was the experience working with such a ‘heavy’ concept (the end of life)? I imagine that it was a deeply moving experience for you and the singers and at times quite difficult? 

It was quite a profound week putting the album together. A key aspect of the experience was that we recorded much of the album standing in a circle around the microphone array. This formation is so very personal and interactive, and it facilitated some profound moments of true ensemble singing that are frankly much harder to achieve with everyone staring at a conductor.

Fortunately for us, we did not record the works in any particular order, nor did we dwell too much on the album narrative during the process, as it would have been hard to emotionally disengage. However, there were many moments where I think we all felt that something truly special was with us in the room. After a complete take of Nicolai Kedrov’s ethereal Otche Nash (during which I sat on the floor with my eyes closed), about half of the group (myself included) erupted into a spontaneous bout of tears. Our sessions recording the Carols of Death by William Schuman felt like they were guided by the invisible hand of the composer, and the intensity with which we felt some of the final cadences necessitated re-adjusting the microphones 3 or 4 times. Bringing our free and chant-driven interpretation of the Tavener Funeral Ikos to life was an out-of-body experience for me.  

In the time since the release, I have been deeply moved by personal stories of people who have been touched by our album. Some stories have come from a time of acute personal grief. For others, hearing the music has brought back memories of an intense past experience. These stories have furthered my belief that music has the ability to communicate truths in a visceral way that speaks directly to the heart.

The album has a very interesting mix of music from different backgrounds. I am particularly interested in the Icelandic connection. How do you feel the Icelandic music adds to the theme of ‘Crossing Over’? Is it looking for a shared experience of death between the disparate cultures, or to highlight the differences when placed side by side with others? 

For me, the most powerful aspects of the Icelandic music are the extremely evocative sound world created by the language and harmonies and how they fit into the album’s emotional progression.

To my American ear, the language itself is quite ethereal and wispy, filled with expressive unvoiced ‘s’, ‘th’, and ‘h’ sounds. This combined with the sometimes spare, sometimes rich harmonies of the Thorvaldsdottir piece creates a vibe that truly paints the picture of souls of leaving this world for what may lay beyond. This piece comes immediately after the Carols of Death in the album, and is the moment where those who are religious could infer a moment of ascension to an afterlife.

Jon Leifs’ Requiem uses language and harmony to paint an extremely evocative picture of grief. For someone nearing death, I feel this is one of those blurred dreamlike images of things long past – of dear ones loved and lost. A duality between joy and sadness: grieving for loved ones whose lives have ended, but grateful for a life filled with love.

In 1947, his daughter Lif drowned while swimming off the coast of Sweden shortly before her 18th birthday. In the weeks that followed, Leifs composed his Requiem while his family was bringing her body to Iceland for burial. The text is quite spare, focusing on simple images of death in nature, interspersed with highly personal poetic excerpts that bring Leifs’ own tragedy into focus. The music reflects this simple elegance. The feel is of a gentle but moving funeral procession in the Icelandic folk tradition (andante, molto tranquillo). The strong downbeat of each bar also creates an almost wave-like motion to the music, which is particularly compelling given the story of the piece. Almost the entire piece is some variation of an A chord – major, minor, and an open fifth. The harmonic shifts through these variations are sudden and frequent, like the pangs of remorse and happy memories that come during a time of tragedy - it is as if every few measures takes us through several stages of grief. 

You worked closely with Anna Thorvaldsdottir during the recording of her setting of ‘Heyr þú oss himnum á’. When programming or recording a contemporary piece how much do you like to work with the composer? Is it essential? 

I had the privilege of working with three composers while producing Crossing OverAnna Thorvaldsdottir, Daniel Elder, and Robert Vuichard. As someone who is accustomed to analyzing music to death with the hope of revealing some insight on the composer’s intent, it is absolutely astounding to be able to just ask! I talked to all three composers a great deal, and their insights certainly colored our interpretations.

It was also fun, though, to realize that some of our interpretive thoughts or insights had never crossed the composers’ minds, but they were still thrilled to hear them and open to them.

Are there any contemporary composers writing choral music you are following closely at the moment? 

There are more fantastic composers working right now than I could name (the three on our album are of course on our list). In the US, I also follow the work of Abbie Betinis, Zachary Wadsworth and David Lang. In the UK, I think James MacMillan and Alexander L’Estrange are doing some amazing work. There is also extremely exciting music coming out of Eastern Europe – Polish Composer Paweł Łukaszewski and composers of the extremely rich choral cultures of Finland and Estonia (including Veljo Tormis and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi) come to mind.

Outside of choral music?

I’m embarrassed to say that I stick pretty close to our own genre. This is a good reminder that I should branch out more!

Do you find the instrumental and choral worlds separate at all? Especially in terms of contemporary music. 

I must say that for me the key to choral music is that it generally animates a text. I love music of many genres, including instrumental music, but I do find that having a text can raise the art to a more profound level for me, if done well.

I do find, though, that some composers (both contemporary and from the past) are not as effective at meeting that burden. Choral pieces that I find less compelling are those that seem like they could be composed for any old text, and are not inextricably linked to them texts themselves. Not that ‘vibe pieces’ can’t be pretty – it just seems like a bit of a waste. I’d personally rather listen to beautiful instrumental music without a text than to a clunky piece of choral music whose text is not utilized well. Does that sound crazy?

By the way, I would exempt from this critique the work of friends and colleagues in groups like Roomful of Teeth who are intentionally stretching the boundaries of what sounds “trained voices” can make, and almost at times turning the voice into an extremely multi-faceted instrument. That is exciting, text or no text!

There seems to be an emphasis on rarely heard music, be it a new piece or a rare, older piece. There must be a joy in opening a piece with relatively fewer existing interpretations? There must also be some challenges?

It is thrilling to think that we could make the first or one of the first attempts to capture the essence of a piece. I love that it removes the potential of second guessing that invariably occurs when one’s interpretation is directly contradicted by a past recording of a respected conductor or performer. I also love that there is no starting “anchor” (E.g., an interpretation that is subconsciously planted in our brains from past experience). We performed the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil (‘Vespers’) earlier this year, and I had to work very hard to remove the Robert Shaw recording imprint from my subconscious.

That said, you are right - it is a little terrifying. Unless the composer is available to chat, there aren’t many clues beyond the score and there is certainly no consensus – when conquering a masterwork, there is certainly an element of standing on the shoulder of giants, because we know that masters have been wrestling with the same interpretive questions for generations!

Do you prefer to start from the score or are you also looking for and paying attention to other interpretations? I think this is also interesting in the context of the Funeral Ikos by Tavener on ‘Crossing Over’ as the tempo is so different to other interpretations. It would suggest a really clearly personal vision of a piece originating in the score. 

It’s always a bit of both. Purists would say to avoid recordings. But I have to admit, if a piece has been performed a lot, I will listen to as many recordings as I can find early in the process to get a sense of the bounds of what others have considered. Then I intentionally avoid recordings for a while, and try to develop my own sense of the piece from the score and from the text itself (to me word for word translations are really critical, as is a strong sense of harmonic structure). Once I have a strong personal view, I’ll re-visit a few recordings to see if I find anything surprising, primarily to make sure I didn’t miss something important.

It is interesting that you mention the Funeral Ikos. That one really stumped me. The piece has been recorded dozens of times, by some of the best choirs. In the opening instructions on the score, Tavener uses the instructions “Always quiet, solemn, and flexible, Quarter note = 88.” Ours is the only recording I have found that gets anywhere close to the tempo indicated in the score (and I’m embarrassed to say that despite my best intentions I think we still clock in somewhere in the low 80s). And you are right, it does feel quite different.

It seems to me that most conductors have seen the word ‘funeral’ in the title and the word ‘Solemn’ in the opening instruction, and have consciously or unconsciously discounted both the word ‘flexible’ and the metronome marking. On the one hand, it seems likely that Tavener must have been comfortable with all the slower interpretations, as I feel it unlikely that he wouldn’t have been consulted by Peter Phillips for the Tallis Scholars’ recording (or by many other great conductors for their recordings). But, to me, the faster tempo moves the piece from the realm of dirge to inspired prayer. And the fact that Tavener ever contemplated a much faster tempo means to me that it is an interpretation worth sharing.

You are quoted as saying, 

This is a little embarrassing, but I think it has been fun for singers in Skylark to see someone approach something from a totally different perspective than what they’re used to

In what ways is your approach different? You mention your time spent as a management consultant and data analysis…

Over the last few years I’ve become pretty obsessed with structural and historical analysis of pieces. I’m also a bit of a math nerd, and I make lots of charts. I shared a bit of this insanity in a blog post earlier this year about the Rachmaninov Vespers (both tempi choices and structure). Musicians are not used to charts – and I make a lot of them, and am not embarrassed to sharing them!

This kind of passion for forensic analysis in music usually pushes people to the dark side to dabble in some composing. Have you written music or have you ever been tempted? 

Other than a few pieces for music classes in college, no I have never done any original composing. I have arranged and/or heavily edited pieces for Skylark programs when I feel like there isn’t an existing arrangement that fits the progression of the program. When arranging, I mostly think about how to allow the melody and text of the piece can be allowed to sing as truly and as clearly as possible. I think a lot of choral arrangements are “over-arranged” in a way that is more about flexing the muscles of the arranger than they are about communicating the essence of the piece.

The team at Sono Luminus are achieving great things in their field including Grammy awards. Can you tell us something about your experience working with them? 

I was blown away by the team. Dan Merceruio is a calm, impeccably organized, and professional producer with inspiringly phenomenal ears. Dan Shores is a true wizard in the session and in post-production – he knows how to capture and share the beauty of living and breathing music. And Caleb Nei and Collin J. Rae were both incredible collaborators in the creation of a beautiful album booklet illuminated by original photography. From start to finish, it truly felt like a joint, collegial, and familial effort in creating something beautiful.

How do you find the process of recording as opposed to live performance? 

Being a nutty perfectionist, I actually love recording. There is certainly a thrill of having an audience, but I am equally inspired by the the possibility of capturing the best version of something that can inspire people for years to come. The knowledge that no individual take must be perfect can be incredibly liberating, and can give musicians “permission” to give even more of themselves to a recording take than could ever be possible on stage.

You are the co-Founder of ‘Babiators’, who manufacture designer eyewear for babies. Do you find working out side the frame of the musical world inspire your activities within it? 

I think there are really tangible skills that transfer both ways. There certainly is a real advantage in the non-profit world to have experience in running a business enterprise – it helps with organization, marketing, board formation, financial planning, and fundraising. But I also think there are incredible skills that can transfer from the world of music into business. Leading a group of professional musicians is much more about allowing and enabling everyone in the group to perform to their full potential than it is about directing them. While it certainly is important to come prepared and to have an interpretive perspective, the actual process of making music at a high level is enabled by instilling trust, joy and commitment in all involved. I think that lesson is one that can and should be transferred to business schools and boardrooms.

Matthew Guard in conversation with Seán Ó Dálaigh

Crossing Over


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