Baha’i Choral Composition Blast

We live in amazing times; I’ve become friends and have been able to collaborate with some fantastic people online. Alan and Lorraine Manifold are one such example. It’s been a pleasure to work together with them. For example, Naysan interviewed Alan about his mystery novel (that features a Baha’i detective!) titled Consulting Detective and they wrote an article called “It’s OK to Be a Feminist” that involved some insightful consultations about the equality of women and men and how we write about this weighty teaching on a personal Baha’i-inspired blog — there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes here at Baha’i Blog and if you’re ever curious about the principles and ideas that guide our work, check out our Editorial Values.

I recently learned about the “Baha’i Composition Blast”, a new brainchild of Alan and Lorraine in honor of the upcoming Bicentenary of the Birth of the Bab, and it was fascinating to hear about it. Here’s what they shared with us: 

Baha’i Blog: Hi Alan and Lorraine! For our readers who may not have read about Bahaichoralmusic.com or your great article “Choral Music in the Baha’i Community”, can you please tell us a little about yourselves?

We are Baha’is who moved to Melbourne, Australia six years ago from North America. Integrating choral music and other arts into the activities of the Baha’i community is one of our passions, so we formed the Perfect Chord choir in Melbourne within months of arriving here. For each of the last four years, we have organised Baha’i Choral Festivals at the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney. These festivals bring together singers from all around Australia and elsewhere to learn and perform devotional choral music, in line with Abdu’l-Baha’s encouragement of the friends to:

“Play and sing out the holy words of God with wondrous tones in the gatherings of the friends, that the listener may be freed from chains of care and sorrow, and his soul leap for joy and humble itself in prayer to the realm of Glory.”

Baha’i Blog: Could you give us a description of the Baha’i Composition Blast?

For our 2017 Choral Festival, the theme was the story of Baha’u’llah, celebrating the 200th anniversary of His birth. For 2019, we want to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Birth of the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s forerunner. We quickly realised that there are not that many songs for choir based on the Words of the Bab, so we sent out an invitation to Baha’i composers, as well as other composers we knew of, inviting them to compose new choral works based on the Writings of the Bab. Songs that fit the needs of our Festival choir would be performed as part of the 2019 Choral Festival.

Three of us were involved. Pierre Weber is a professional composer and pianist currently living in Kosovo. He has extensive training in composition and really knows the rules of harmony. He also has a terrific ear for what sounds good, plus excellent ideas to improve songs. Lorraine and I have both composed a number of songs for choir and have lots of choral experience, but have less formal training in composition. One of my contributions is thinking about setting the words so they sound natural, have the right emphasis, and properly highlight the texts. Lorraine is a trained choral conductor and often focuses on vocal capacity and level of singability. All three of us know the Festival choir, so we know what will work well and what might be challenging.

Baha’i Blog: What kind of response did you get from the composers you contacted?

Many composers were excited by the opportunity to participate because there aren’t that many Baha’i choirs around to provide chances for composers to get Baha’i-inspired songs performed. We received 26 songs from 15 composers, living in Alaska, Belgium, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, and several parts of the United States.

Songs sung in Baha’i Temples have to be a cappella (i.e. no instrumental accompaniment) and have to be based on scripture. We also provided guidelines on length, difficulty, and vocal range. The songs had to be new and never before performed, and diverse styles were welcomed. We encouraged the use of passages from the Bab that had not been previously set for choirs.

Baha’i Blog: What did you do with the songs you received?

We reviewed the songs carefully to determine which ones might fit our needs. Some of the songs we received were too difficult for our choir or didn’t follow our guidelines. When we received multiple songs from a single composer, we picked one of them to focus on. A few songs were not based on scripture, so they can’t be sung in the House of Worship. That left us with seven songs.

This is where the process got really interesting. We adopted a role of accompaniment, with the goal of raising capacity and creating excellent music. We offered lots of suggestions, based on our composition experience as well as our knowledge of the singers at the Festival. The composers are quite varied in background and skill, so we tailored our suggestions carefully for each song. We gave suggestions for enhancing harmonies or making the parts more logical and easier to sing. We suggested changes to how the words were set and pointed out passages that might sound muddied in the acoustics of the Temple auditorium. Sometimes we suggested specific changes in notes or rhythms, and other times we simply pointed out issues and asked the composers to consider ways to improve them.

Baha’i Blog: How did this model of accompaniment play out?

We were a bit uncertain about how people might react, so we constantly assured the composers that they had the final say in their pieces, and we offered reasons for our suggestions. In the end, they all responded very graciously. One said, “Thanks for the constructive advice – I love it [his piece] even more now.” They didn’t adopt all our suggestions; sometimes they came up with their own solutions and in a few cases, they liked their first way better, all of which was fine with us.

Having recently gotten a novel published, I found similarities with the process of publishing. An editor does not hesitate to suggest how a book can be improved. Authors bring their creative work, their subject matter expertise, and skill in writing, and editors bring a breadth of knowledge about books, the publishing business, and the markets they cater for. Both parties are necessary for the public to appreciate the end product. We know what our choir can sing and what will fit into the Choral Festival program. The composers don’t know that part, and thus are happy to be guided by us in shaping their creative work for performance. It’s a win-win-win situation, because the audience will also benefit.

Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A 2001 letter from the International Teaching Centre said:

“We must be sensitive to the fact that Baha’i artists may sometimes feel outside the mainstream of community life because they are unsure as to what form their service might take. They may feel their contributions are not valued if service to the Faith tends to be equated only with serving on committees or Assemblies.”

Most composers of songs for Baha’i choirs are amateurs, working in some degree of isolation. They might spend hours labouring over a piece of music with no one to perform it, appreciate it, or even understand why the composer would want to create it. With the Composition Blast, we wanted to encourage composers, help build their capacity, and give them an opportunity to have their pieces performed, all to help them feel part of a global community.

Baha’i Blog: When and where will people be able to enjoy the fruits of the Composition Blast?

The Australian Baha’i Choral Festival will be held in Sydney on 5-8 September 2019, with devotional concerts on the 8th. People can register to sing as of April 14th. For more information, people can visit our website www.bahaichoralfestival.org.au. The seven Composition Blast pieces will be among the 16 songs in the repertoire. After the concert, we’ll post videos of each song on our YouTube page, which already has lots of uplifting spiritual choral music people can use in their core activities, Feasts, and Holy Days, or just to enjoy. The sheet music will also be made available on our Baha’i Choral Music website where we offer free sheet music for choirs from composers all over the world.

Baha’i Blog: Thanks very much, Lorraine and Alan, for chatting with us about the Composition Blast. I can’t wait to hear the new songs!

About the Author

Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a mother, a wife and a bookworm but professionally she is a museologist and a library technician. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.

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