Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 3)

By Walter Saul

October 17-19, 2019

At 10:15 am on the 18th, two papers were presented as we continued our meetings at Mississippi College: Hodie, by David Davies, and Mandatory Mentorship in Music, by Ian Evans Guthrie.

The first presentation was a marvelous chronological narrative on the creation of Davies’ work Hodie on a commission he received from Texas A&M University-Commerce where he serves on the music department faculty. This followed neatly on the heels of our convocation as Davies unpacked the details of composing a work uniting chorus with wind ensemble for a “holiday” concert in a public university within the Bible Belt. While some reference to the birth of Jesus was permitted and expected, this could not be a Christmas anthem, highlighting Davies’ need to bring art music to the public square, not merely being a church musician (even though he and his wife do serve as church musicians in Plano, Texas)! Davies met this commission challenge by wisely selecting an ancient Latin text (less offensive) that conveys a simple pan-Christian declaration of the birth in only six lines – all within the public domain!

Davies faced another daunting challenge in uniting choir to band. To address balance issues, the full ensemble accompanies the choir only at key climactic points, and the few instruments that do accompany the choir more routinely often double a voice part in a different octave. The short text also helps here, for the choir’s repetitions of the words help the text emerge from the thick textures.

The Latin text also seems to inspire ancient sounding music. Rather than remain with major and minor tonalities, Davies favors the older church modes, notably Lydian (major scale with a raised 4th step) and Mixolydian (major scale with lowered 7th step). Davies also achieves some welcome harmonic color effects by frequent borrowing from minor keys into their parallel major-like modes. A favorite chord is bVI (in Eb that would be a Cb major chord that really belongs to the parallel Eb minor key).

Davies also spoke of his “shameless pandering”: indulging in harmonies like those of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre in the calmer middle section of this ABA-form work and Baroque-like melismas and Handel-like homophony in the more extroverted opening and closing sections. Responding to the short rehearsal time, Davies shrewdly chose repetition and doubling of the choir to make the anthem easy to learn and perform confidently, and chose a main tonality of Eb major so the band would have easy key signatures in their parts.

Despite all his precautions, he ran into several little difficulties, all of which he solved with “the art of compromise.” This paper is an excellent compendium on the art of fulfilling commissions and gave us a few moments of good humor as we walked through the many challenges he so ably met in this work. This marvelous piece can be heard at Scroll down to the Hodie YouTube and enjoy!

The second paper, Mandatory Mentorship in Music, by Ian Evans Guthrie, comments extensively on a buzzword topic, mentoring, that is curiously rare amongst composers, even within the CFAMC. This is a most welcome paper. In my university teaching career spanning forty years, I have heard that word used more and more, but it remains ill-defined, as Guthrie correctly observes. It is also hard to create trust between mentors and mentees, even when that relationship has been previously defined, such as in a student-advisor relationship in the university setting.

Guthrie gives two excellent reasons to promote mentoring, especially across generational lines: 1) increasing persecution of Christians, and, 2) increases in isolating activities, particularly with social media and the Internet. He also discusses many roadblocks to effective mentoring:

  1. Difficulty in establishing trust, especially with assigned mentors
  2. Mentors might be readily available, but not immediately approached by mentees (a problem I have experienced increasingly as a university advisor)
  3. Generational disconnects
  4. Mentors might be approachable, but not always reliable
  5. Mentor-teachers might be “too old” or can’t share their faith in Christ but only Western culture
  6. Not enough time is invested in the mentor/mentee relationship

Guthrie encourages, nay, commands mentors to share Jesus Christ with mentees and to be guided by the Lord to the mentees he or she should mentor. Further, mentors need to be humble, not condescending, and mentees should look up or around, but not downward for mentors. Mentees should respect older mentors and write thank-you notes! And he concludes with two excellent bits of advice: 1) Christians must invest more in students, and, 1) prospective mentors and mentees should consider their current communities rather than their ideal ones. Ask, “What can I do here?”

One excellent example of mentoring Guthrie included is Cesar Franck, who deferred to student preferences and thereby became a pillar of early modern French aesthetics, as contrasted to Gabriel Fauré, the stern president of the Paris Conservatoire who discouraged Claude Debussy and other young composers from finding their own voice and became himself a fading voice for the past. I would further cite Franz Josef Haydn, who encouraged the young Mozart and played in a string quartet with him, and who gave the headstrong Beethoven a few lessons and advice. This is a fine paper with a palpable challenge for all of us!