Monthly archives "April 2016"

TAO May 2016–Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure

If you believe the myth that Southern California, where I live, is perpetual summer, you’ve got another thing coming. We have winter, too. Yes, we do. We even have jackets and sweaters for those frosty 45-degree nights. We look askance at our high school students who insist on continuing their shorts-and-flip-flop couture despite plunging thermometers. We shiver in empathy with the rest of the nation. We drive to see the snow in nearby mountains, while reading with amazement that, in other parts of the country, snow comes to you where you live. What an amazing convenience that would be!
Like many of my colleagues in this corner of the world, I am a refugee from northern climes. Moving to So Cal was a survival strategy. You might think I am just a wimp who likes to practice without gloves in sanctuaries without icicles. Don’t get me wrong—there are many, many things I love about northern living. None more that seeing those waves of shimmering light we call the aurora borealis. This sight sets the standard for what I consider to be the proper use of the word, “awesome.”
Physics can easily explain how the aurora borealis works. Understanding the science behind them cannot diminish its impact upon us. But, I will need art if I want to share my experience with you. The sheer beauty of the aurora borealis is a reminder that there is something beyond us. What is beyond us is the essence of life, and art is the way we help ourselves understand what it means.
Most of us musicians depend upon someone to help us translate primary experience into something we can play. This is the composer’s task. What an awesome task it is—to fit the right chords and melodies and rhythms into the right forms so that others can know the beauty that exists in our universe. It is easy for us to take our composers for granted. So, let’s pause for a moment of appreciation.
If what we have just said is true, the mind of a composer must be a wondrous thing. Clearly, composers learn from each other and from performers who work with them. They learn from music history and from other art forms, like literature and the visual arts. Their task is to filter their experiences through their own personal lens, and then put it down on paper so we can enjoy the sounds they have chosen.
Here is how Vancouver, B.C. composer Denis Bédard thinks about his work: “Music must go somewhere. It must contain an inside dynamism which makes not only each section of piece to be succeeded by another section in a logical way, but also each chord and each note to have a weight and to be attracted by the following one. This is the way tonal music functions, and this is the way the universe (infinitely small or large) functions, too–in an attraction-repulsion way.” Clearly he has seen the borealis for himself!
You might recognize M. Bédard as the composer of a very appealing toccata that has been appearing more and more frequently on recital programs. Fortunately for us, not everything he has written is so high velocity. As a matter of fact, there are several of his works you might really enjoy getting to know. They are all available on his website:
Working as a church musician himself, he is the ultimate practical organist who has written several delightful sets of variations on well-known hymn tunes, such as “Madrid” (Cheldar 60), “For All the Saints” (Ch. 25), “Tell Out My Soul (Woodlands)” (Ch. 62), and “Herzlich tut (O Sacred Head)” (Ch. 46). He has several Christmas pieces to look at: “In Dulci Jubilo” (Ch. 09) and Deux Noels (Ch. 24), containing “Huron” and “Il Est Né.” I think you will enjoy them for the variety of moods he puts into each one. Your congregation will definitely love them, because they will be able to follow the tune throughout. How many times can you say that? He also has a number of Gregorian pieces you might like to look at, as well.
M. Bédard’s imagination really comes to life in his free works. Some of his easiest pieces reveal his love of harmony. Six Interludes (Ch. 06) and Six Nouveaux Interludes (Ch. 22) are a virtual tour of his vocabulary. If you are looking for simple, short pieces, take a look at these. Each has a distinct personality, and you will find many uses for them in the service.
Equally useful for service playing is his Andantino (Ch. 18). This longer work shows the sensual side he clearly loves. He has a gift for writing luscious harmonies and gorgeous melodies that develop beautifully without leaving a saccharine aftertaste. There are more of these gems scattered throughout his multi-movement works. Try Trois Piéces Galantes (Ch. 61) or the middle movement of Trois Voluntaries (Ch. 31), with its haunting B-section trio.
The Cheldar catalog is a postlude lover’s dream. Clearly, M. Bédard loves to play! He uses colorful harmony to keep relatively square rhythms vital. The two outer movements of Trois Voluntaries are perfect examples. Even shorter, and just as fun to play are Trois Piéces Bréves (Ch. 49). You will find a more scholarly approach in Quatre Psaumes (Ch. 48), where each piece is an updated Renaissance or Baroque form. M. Bédard knows how to use antique forms without being dry. I think you will enjoy these. There are two postlude’s worth of material in Fantasia for Organ (Ch. 57). This six-minute work is definitely a value whether you play the whole thing or break it up into sections.
Let there be no misunderstanding: M. Bédard is himself a virtuoso performer. If you are up for a little more challenge I recommend you investigate these moderately difficult works. Suite Liturgique (Ch. 27) starts with three simple pieces anyone can play. It ends with a delightful “Sortie” that combines swirls of cascading triads with long, simple pedal lines. This will take a little more practice, but it is fun to play. The same is true for his Suite (Ch. 12), from which the famous “Toccata” comes. The first movements are much easier to learn and beautiful to play. I have enjoyed learning Suite Romantique (Ch. 39). If you have a good pianist, you will love his Duet Suite for Piano and Organ (Ch. 32).
Combining creativity with faithful service as a church musician, Denis Bédard is one in a long lineage of composers filling our never ending need for new, fresh music for congregations. There are many Bach’s among us. If you know someone, get into a conversation with him or her. Learn how a composer thinks about her craft. There can only be deeper insight and inspiration for your own music making there.