A small blessing, if i may be permitted that privilege …

on this night 47 years ago, candle in hand, i stood on the quadrangle* and for the very first time in my entire life sang these words:

what can i give him, poor as i am?
if i were a shepherd, i would bring a lamb.
if i were a wise man, i would do my part.
yet what i can, i give him: give my heart.

o my dearest friends, whether you stood there beside me that night or not, please know that i am truly grateful — beyond words — for each and every last one of you. Christmas blessings to you!

 

* for my students who don’t know what “the quadrangle” is, it is the heart of the campus of Westminster Choir College, where i learned anything worth knowing that i have ever shared with you. it is where i found my life, and where a piece of me will forever dwell. when i am dead and forgotten, it is where i want what remains of me left to rest.

here’s what it looks like (i lived in the building to the left of the picture):

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Christmas Bonus

An unpublished arrangement, written for my friend and student Kris Kehrer, exquisitely performed by The Ember Ensemble, conducted by my friend Dr Deborah Simpson-King.

Anyone who’d like a copy of this piece, including a pronunciation guide for singing the Polish first verse, please just send me an email, and it’s yours.

Merriest of Christmases to you all, my friends!

A Christmas Broadcast!

GREAT NEWS!

The recording of “I Will Be The Light” made in the National Concert Hall in Dublin will be broadcast on RTE Radio 1 at 0900 GMT on Christmas Day!

This works out to 4 AM Eastern for folks in the States (or 3 AM for my sons in Texas . . . sorry, guys).

To live stream the broadcast, go to https://www.liveradio.ie/stations/rte-radio-1 and follow the directions given there.

(A huge thank you to Lesley Bishop, my dear friend at the RTE, for this information!)

A Farewell Picture Album

It’s been a fantastic day to end an unforgettable week. And as wonderful as Wednesday’s premiere was (and believe me, it really was) today was more fun for me even than that, because today I got to do what I enjoy the most, and frankly think I do the best: working with voices in rehearsal. Here are a few samples . . .

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That’s right! TALL vowels, please! (Not bad for a guy who broke his left arm 5 weeks ago.)

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Yes, you can cue a piano while still looking at your ensemble. Not seen is Ms. Carole O’Connor, who definitely deserves to be called a collaborative keyboard artist.

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Yes, soprani: open your lower backs wide, and all of a sudden it really isn’t that hard!

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Channeling the late George Lynn and Dr Dennis Shrock. Also, “soft singing is just loud singing sung softly.”

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The fellow in the middle is Fr Liam Lawton, a wonderful composer and artist. We share a home at GIA Publications, and he once sang with Dr Norah Duncan as his pianist! The young man on the right is Ciaran Jack Crangle, a young but incredibly gifted operatic tenor. Keep that name in your mind — he’s one to watch!

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This is about the happiest I get, working with smart singers and changing things for the better in ways they can remember and replicate without me!

My deepest thanks to Lesley Bishop, the indefatigable manager of all things choral at RTÉ, for whom I have to thank for these pictures and so much more, and to Mary Amond O’Brien, the wonderful conductor of these ensembles, for the opportunity to make music with them. I can’t wait to come back and be with you all!

In my Beginning is my End. In my End is my Beginning.

Poetry lovers will recognize the first half of this title as the beginning of “East Coker,” the second of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1940). But the tradition from which Eliot draws is far, far older than that, and it looks like this:

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This is one of the cleverest pieces in all music history, Ma fin est mon commencement (“In my end is my beginning”). The author of the text and composer of the music are one and the same genius of a human being: Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – 1377).

Machaut is unquestionably one of the great composers of all time, if one of the most neglected, and wrote this particular piece of music in a structure that both shows and tells the story of the text with dizzying precision (technically, it’s a canon canzicrans over a palindrome, to be specific).

You can listen to (and watch a brilliant animated score) of this astonishing work here. An equally brilliant explanation of how Machaut makes this happen, which I just know all but none of my theory students are dying to read, can be found here.

What’s the point of all this esoteric scholasticism? It is just more of Custer showing off again, full of arcane pedantry and useless academic pretense?

Actually, no.

It’s simply to say with utter clarity a truth that is particularly poignant for me today:

Every ending opens the door to a new beginning,
Every beginning requires that something else must end.

Part of me is remaining behind here in Ireland. Like any traveler, I know where home is, and I want to be there, enjoying all it holds. But I have been forever changed by being and spending time here, in the land from which my mother’s mother’s people came.

I have come to love the gentle accents and sly wit that I hear in the air around me as I walk her rain-swept streets. I have fallen in love with the five thousand shades of red hair and ten thousand thousand shades of green she freely holds up for my eyes to see. More than a bit of a homecoming it’s been for me, and that’s for true.

And now, as if for the very first time, I finally begin to truly understand words that have haunted my life for more than two decades, as some of you well know:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

But most of all, Ireland has taught me how central storytelling truly is to the choral art. Stories, of course, are as full of beginnings and endings as anything else I know. I’m chastened by the obviousness of this insight–and humiliated by my obliviousness to it until now. For years, I’ve approached choral music making based on text, focusing on how it’s built, and how it works. And now I see that in fact I’ve missed the boat.

The name of that boat is meaning.

Meaning is what carries us from the beginning to the end of the story we tell in song, because meaning is the story itself. It is what it does, and it does what it is, which is the definition of an encounter with the divine, a sacrament. Meaning is like that. So’s music.

Meaning is where all those phonemes and rhyme schemes and shadow vowels have really been heading all along. It is the destination for all of the preparation, analysis, and technique I have tried to put into my conducting, and all the artfulness my choirs create. Without understanding this, it’s just a vain exercise, nothing more than an empty show. But rightly understood, it is incredibly liberating to realize that it is the story that matters, because it is the story that is the container of truth and beauty.

Coming home to that understanding means leaving some of my most cherished and most familiar tricks of the trade behind. Fine, then. Leave them. They were doubtlessly useful then, but I am not the same person that I once was. That time is over and done. On we go, and forward: second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

I came to Ireland not at all sure what I might find.
I found that I am leaving a part of myself behind, here, and that for good.

In my beginning is my end. And in my end, is my beginning.

Pictures and Words

A quick start to the day for all of you on the other side of the ocean.
Here’s what the program looked like.
Sorry it’s a bit off-kilter and dark. Please take pity on the (amateur) photographer:

Yes, I am still pinching myself a bit.
I know it happened, but it all still seems surreal.

And on a more lovely note, here’s the view from the back door of my bedsit, suffused with . . . wait, is that sunlight? Yes. Yes it is.

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Nothing like a sunny morning in Dublin 6 to finish drafting Theory III’s final exam!

In the moment

One thing I often tell choirs who are performing my music as well as choirs I conduct in performance is that if they sing with real intention and singleness of purpose, they can stop time. They can be fully present, and dwell completely in the moment (this is just a homely paraphrase of the title of an 1847 sermon by Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of heart is to will one thing.)

The challenge, of course, is getting there. We have to set aside distractions external (the hall, the day, the notes, the audience) and internal (ego, fear, insecurity, and all the rest) and find a way to be at home in the center of the music we make with one another. In choral music-making, we have an easier path than orchestral musicians do, because we have the added benefit of text to communicate the elements of story.

Even so, this is a daunting task, as anyone who has tried it knows full well. All the more impressive, then, that the members of RTÉ Cór Linn — a mixed choir of 35 or so singers aged 15 to 20, meeting weekly on Saturdays — achieved such a high level of artistry last night in their premiere of the newly orchestrated arrangement of I Will Be The Light in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, accompanied by the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra and conductor Gavin Maloney.

2770-036-300x204The concert itself was something the likes of which I’ve never seen before: a live taping of the hugely successful “Sunday Miscellaney” (here pronounced miss-CELL-a-nee for reasons that remain in the cloud of unknowing to me) radio programme on RTÉ, which cleverly alternates prose and poetry with musical performances in a variety of styles from jazz and pop standards to classical.

Some shows are themed, and that’s what was happening last night–a recording of the programme’s highly popular “Live at Christmas” episode. From my seat near the front of the main balcony, I was afforded a view that showed a sold-out house (in fact, it had been sold out in advance for some time).

RTÉ Cór Linn had been on site for hours before concert time, and I got to finally meet them around 4:30, when they gathered to warm up and polish the two selections they were going to sing on the programme: Mark Hayes’ choral/orchestral setting of Sing We All of Christmas (based on the French Noël Nouvelet) and the premiere of my tune.

And they were just what you’d expect from a group of singers that age: plenty of high spirits, lots of energy, boisterous . . . one young tenor cutting a length of fabric to fashion an improvised tie in place of the one he’d forgotten at home . . . that is, until the time for the downbeat came.

Now, I have been around choirs of one kind or another for 45 years. But this singing was truly special. Free, lovely sound. Nuanced phrasing. Healthy dynamic range (not wispy at piano, not belted or throaty at forte). Energized line. It was hard to believe that they’d only been singing together since September.

Was there room for improvement? Sure. We spent time reviewing some of the basic principles for singers’ diction: when two consonants meet, insert a shadow vowel. When two vowels meet, always bracket the second vowel. When singing a diphthong, energize the sustained vowel and don’t even think about the vanishing vowel. Vocal  consonants having pitch must carry the pitch of the vowel that follows them, as in “mood,” or on the pitch of the vowel that precedes them, as in “doom.”

They all were quick studies, and held onto the new concepts very well. Then it was time to go rehearse with the orchestra. That’s when things got surprising–and wonderful.

The first surprise was that they were seated in the balcony behind and above the stage, next to the organ console, which they took in stride. The second surprise was hearing the instrumentation for the first time; they had been singing my tune strictly with the piano accompaniment I had originally written for it. Even though none of the notes were new, the colours were, and the first time they sang through it with Maestro Maloney things were a little tentative.

By the second run-through, they were back in the groove, and all that was really needed was to check for balance between the performing forces. So they hired this guy, who was otherwise standing around doing nothing, and got things toned down appropriately:

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And then it was time for the concert. The first half closed with my tune, and the choir sang it beautifully. I managed to maintain my composure, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t easy. After the applause died down, the narrator doing continuity for the evening said, “The composer of this piece is an American, Dr Gerald Custer from Detroit, and we’ve heard he’s come over to hear tonight’s premiere. We hope he liked it!”

Well, to borrow a phrase from a famous dead Welshman, I am not one to “go gentle into that good night.” So I yelled out, as charmingly as possible–but still resonantly–from my seat in the balcony, “Why, yes — he certainly did!”

And then the lights came up, and it was time for the interval (intermission), and that was that. Over and done.

So that’s the story. I wish you could have all been with me in person, and I hope this little account helped bring it alive somewhat. I could sense your presence with me in spirit, and that was a source of real happiness. Thank you for being there.

At some point, RTÉ will broadcast the concert on one of their FM channels. I’ve been told we can stream them over here, so when I get the date and time information, I will post it here for anyone who’s interested.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wow. Simply, wow.

It was half past midnight in Dublin (they would say “half twelve,” I think) when I began writing this post. It’s 6 AM now, and I haven’t slept a wink. Tried. Can’t.

Those of you who know me (even slightly) will readily attest that I am seldom at a loss for words. My Irish grandmother, Monica Furlong Pellens, claimed I’d been vaccinated with a phonograph needle, which was essentially a polite way to say I didn’t know when or how to shut up–which is true.

But I have run out of words.

I can’t tell you much. Not yet. But I can tell you a few things in the hopes that it will serve for now, with the promise that I will write more soon.

  • I can tell you that the amazing Cor Linn gave their hearts away with mindful, intentional singing, vulnerable artistry, healthy truth-telling, and transparent honesty.
  • I can tell you that the sold-out audience in the National Concert Hall was thrilled and deeply moved, and responded very kindly to the singers (and the composer)
  • I can tell you that it has been a night, and a premiere, that I will not forget for a long, long time.
  • And I can tell you that the outpouring of comments from friends sharing my joy in all of this is incredibly moving and affirming to me.

Here are the members of Cor Linn and their gifted conductor, Mary Amond O’Brien, just before they took the stage tonight:

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And here we are working hard together:

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Alright, maybe not.

Choral music can change the world, because it always begins by changing the singers.
I believe this with all my heart. I know it is true. I have experienced it personally.

50 years ago, I told my high school teacher that if I could make choral music for the rest of my life, I would be the happiest man on earth. Hearing this, Dr Dennis Shrock smiled at me and said, “I hope that you do.”

That was the desire that fueled my first steps on this journey. It was that same calling that led me to be sitting in the audience of Dublin’s National Concert hall tonight.

For all of this — and for all of you — I am so grateful.

Even if words fail me, I am grateful.

Even if words fail me, music will never fail us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Premiere’s Almost Here!

Take a look at this, friends. Just stop for a sec to take it in. It is no exaggeration.

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This is the outside of the National Concert Hall in the heart of Dublin. The outside. Can you imagine what the inside looks like? Well, imagine no more.

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(Organists, in case you’re interested, it’s a four manual, 56 rank instrument built by Kenneth Jones in 1991 and upgraded in 2006 to include a rank of trompette en chamade. A full list of stops and other technical specifications can be found here.)

I was at the NCH tonight as the guest of Dr Sean Doherty, professor of music at Dublin City University. Dr Sean is a musicologist, composer, inger, ansd choral conductor, and his charming new piece for choir and piano, The Happy Grass, had its premiere there tonight.

Dr Sean and his colleagues at DCU are presently developing a Master’s programme in Choral Studies. We’ll be talking about that on Friday, so I’ll tell you more details then — but for now, let’s just say that we had a delightful talk and dinner ahead of the concert, and that he thought I had some very . . . useful . . . ideas.

He also said he’s going to use all three books I’ve co-authored with Dr Blake Henson
(The Composer’s Craft, From Words to Music, and Arranging) as the core texts for the curriculum, along with the choral primer Working with Voices that’s still in the process of being written.

Not bad for a day’s work. And even though it’s quarter past midnight here, I’m still very geeked — and a little nervous, because tomorrow is the first time the singers and the orchestra will rehearse, and the first time I will hear what my orchestration sounds like and see whether it works.

My former student Kris Kehrer, who among other things is a fine musician as well as the technical guru behind this blog, has figured out that RTE can be picked up on the North American side of the Atlantic. So if the concert is going to be live streamed, I will be sure to provide that information to you. As far as I know, it will begin at 8:00 PM Dublin time (or 2000 GMT), which works out to be 2:00 PM in the Eastern Time Zone, just in case Kris is right and some of you actually want to listen.

Anyway, more tomorrow. It’s cold and I’m wet. Time for tea and crackers, and then to work on the Theory III final exam draft. Never a dull minute around here.