Postcard from Matthew Welch, 12.16.16


Dear SFGC Community, I’m really excited to be in SF with you all – I arrive today straight from the airport to rehearsal! It’s great to reach out here through this postcard in anticipation of my visit.

When Lisa Bielawa approached me to write for the SFGC, I hadn’t written much yet for chorus. I do write for voice, and co-founded a group called Experiments in Opera in NYC, and we try to concoct innovative themes for concerts. We find various ways of putting opera through different lenses: operas in the form of a 3-minute film trailer, for example, or opera expressly for radio consumption so that all visual information is translated into traditional Foley techniques.

My new piece that the SFGC is premiering on Monday at Davies Symphony Hall came out of work I did at Chorus Camp this past summer. I brought materials from Highland piping pedogogy and from Balinese gamelan music and kecak.

Both of these two music traditions are strong backgrounds for me, and the materials I presented were the rhythms, melodic structures, and phonemes/syllables that comprise the music. At camp, I was able to present these building blocks to the singers in a very loose & improvisatory way in which I could interact directly with them - I would sing something to them and they picked it up very quickly. The girls were able to spontaneously layer the musical motifs over each other. Through the camp workshop, I got a really firm grip of their amazing singing skills - very inspiring for a composer! We had a lot of fun too! The rhythms of Balinese music involve a lot of social interaction within an ensemble - a remarkably different way of listening to each other that they also picked up immediately.

My piece for SFGC is a joyful piece – I was inspired by the surprise arrival of my son this year! He just turned a month old! The theme of the work lined his birth up with the theme of Nativity. In my nerdy way I made an association with Handel’s Messiah in which there’s a sinfonia in the middle called the “Pifa” which is traditionally thought of as the Nativity scene within the larger piece.

The types of sonorities evoked in that piece are very much imitative of bagpipes – which comes from the idea of the shepherd and the bagpipes as indicative of a rural setting, and also of the historic/biblical moment of Jesus’ birth. That I was going to be working with children was really inspiring to me and made me think about the initial joys of childhood music-making.

I was first given an old reed organ and eventually developed a totally nerdy small collection of accordions, which led me to bagpipes – I loved all these bold, bright, reedy sounds that could sustain tones endlessly. My first music-making moments were really improvisatory. As soon as I got my accordion I started figuring out how to create my own music with it. Whether or not it was technically advanced or spoke to anybody beyond me was irrelevant – music was about the joy of making sound.

It takes a long time to develop as a musician, and I think that if you have serious passion about it, it’s going to teach you how to meet all of its challenges along the way. Music somehow taught me organizational skills that helped me in other aspects of life. I became used to coordinating with people through music, which led to management skills for working with groups of people. I discovered that I could be good at music, but I that I’d have to work really, really hard at it. As a young person who loves music, a lot of people along the way are going to encourage you and many are going to discourage you. For me, music was about discovering myself, but along the way it introduced me to so many new people. Art is a grand social dialogue, and we’ve been having a great one together. I can’t wait to continue the dialogue with all of you, on Monday night!

From 35,000 feet in the air,

Matthew Welch