Circles: The Music of Timothy Takach Program Notes

“Only Music Keeps Us Here”

The Choral Arts Ensemble is thrilled to present a full concert of music by Timothy C. Takach (b. 1978), including the world premiere of “Circles,” which we commissioned in those heady days before the pandemic. Inspired by “narrative, magical realism, speculative fiction, and making better humans through art,” Takach has received commissions from many ensembles, ranging from Roomful of Teeth, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, U.S. Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus, and Cantus, an a cappella male singing group he co-founded. He studied music composition at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and frequently works as a composer-in-residence, presenter, clinician, and lecturer. His music has been performed on A Prairie Home Companion, the Boston Pops holiday tour, and at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center. As an example of his interest in collaborating with artists in other media, Takach is a co-creator of the theatrical production All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (2006), with a text by Peter Rothstein; it has received well over 100 performances, including on public television. His work as a singer, both in Cantus and in the vocal band Nation with his wife and fellow composer Jocelyn Hagen, surely enriches his choral compositions, providing wonderful lines for every voice.

Our first piece illustrates how Takach combines inspirations from a variety of arts. As he often does, he chose a new poem, this time by author, painter, photographer, and educator Julia Klatt Singer. Together they have focused on several films. In “A Mural of Change,” they chose the 1998 film Pleasantville, which examines what happens in a fictional black-and-white town when art, books, music, and strong emotions give color to certain people and their world. The changes bring both beauty and danger. As Takach writes: “Julia’s poem references the wisdom gained from stories, the power in acknowledging our differences, and the bravery it takes to speak these things out loud.”

A musical exploration of our solar system, “Helios” is a large-scale work that draws on Takach’s interest in astronomy and classical mythology. Completing the project took nearly six years, from when he first got the idea while on tour with Cantus to its first performance by The Singers in Minneapolis. In that time, he researched the solar system and a wide range of potential texts, from translations of ancient literature, through published poetry, to lyrics especially commissioned for this work.

We present three movements, working our way inward from the orbit of Pluto, at the very edge of chaos, toward the life-giving sun. Patricia Monaghan (1946-2012), author of books on female divinities and women’s spirituality, envisions what lies beyond the borders of our solar system not as a menacing emptiness but as full of options, beautiful beyond imagining. Charles Anthony Silvestri, professor of medieval history and frequent collaborator and lyricist with many contemporary composers, takes a more personal approach, recalling first seeing Saturn’s rings. Takach notes that the movement opens with a solo trio, and, “[w]hen the choir enters, the heavens crack open, and wonder is upon us. The choir lays down a familiar harmonic progression often found in popular music, rooting this movement here on Earth.” While Earth does not bear the name of a god, poet Brian Newhouse, longtime managing director and classical music host for Minnesota Public Radio, embraces the precious gifts of life, consciousness, and reverence that our small blue planet nurtures.

“Crossroads,” with words by Joyce Sutphen (b. 1949), Minnesota’s second poet laureate and an English professor, ponders how we experience the turning points in our lives. Often these moments take place in full view of those who know us, but sometimes only the individual realizes the change in direction and the perhaps difficult choices ahead. The public self may seem the same as ever, proceeding in orderly unison with what the world expects, but, as we open ourselves to new experiences, the music gradually opens as well.

We close the first half with a setting of the last poem Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote; in fact, “Annabel Lee” was published only after his death. Although Takach now usually uses works by contemporary poets, he, like many young composers, mostly set works already in the public domain when he was starting out. So, when he decided to set this poem in 2018, it felt like a nostalgic return to where he began as a composer. He writes that he tried to capture the “fierce passion” of the poem through the headlong speed of the music, emphasizing the narrator’s desperate grief.

The two works that start the second half show that distinctions between “popular” and “serious” music are often arbitrary and distorting. Just because a song has an immediate appeal to a wide audience in no way negates its beauty, insights, or emotional truth. “Mirrorball” got its start with the Manchester-based Brit rock group Elbow, which has been performing together since the early 1990s. Lead singer Guy Garvey (b. 1974) wrote it about how falling in love suddenly transforms our whole world; the song appeared on one of the group’s first albums, and Peter Gabriel later recorded it as well. Takach has long admired Elbow’s music for the richness of both its poetic imagery and music. He writes of this setting: “the music itself has a gauzy, rich texture that is painted by the combination of a recurring piano ostinato and lush chords from the singers.… the choir colors that story with rich harmonies and sinuous melodies.”

Takach adapted “Gravedigger” from the song composed by Dave Matthews (b. 1967) for his first solo album after leaving the Dave Matthews Band; it won a Grammy in 2004. Matthews has described it as inspired by walking through a graveyard and wondering about the lives of those who had died. As haunting as Spoon River Anthology and the last act of Our Town, “Gravedigger” uses the collective voices of the chorus to meditate on the stories recounted by the soloist. Takach originally arranged the song for his fellow male singers in Cantus, but the addition of women’s voices in our arrangement intensifies the emotional impact.

These concerts mark the world premiere of Takach’s new work “Circles.” Over two years ago, we commissioned this setting of “Closing the Circle,” by Kentucky poet, essayist, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. 1934). We are grateful for the rare opportunity to learn what our composer had in mind while creating this new work.  In his own words:

“Energy flows around the room as we sing on stage. A conductor takes their cues from the music, gives it to the singers, who give it back to the conductor and to the audience. My job is to funnel and direct that energy, using the sound of consonants, the color of vowels and the rhythm of speech to charge the air of a roomful of listeners, asking them to stay with the music, to pay attention. “Circles” is filled with such energy, coming from the theme of Wendell Berry’s poem. Everything around us constantly changes and yet repeats throughout our lives. We come together and drift apart, lose someone and gain someone else, feel deep grief and profound joy. Berry finds joy in this, in the holding of each other as we join together and allow music to connect us.

Now, at the tail end of this global pandemic (seemingly in its own hundred-year circle), I dream about what I once took for granted: being with others, standing close, singing, joining hands in joy, completing a circle of my own. It begins with a composer’s inspiration and then moves to poetry, to notes on a page, to the conductor, to the singers, and back to an audience that perhaps has a composer within, embracing it all and being inspired to go back and write again.”

Unlike the other pieces in this concert, “Goodbye, Then,” with words by Minneapolis poet, editor, and teacher Doug Wilhide, includes the accompaniment of an instrument besides the piano. The clarinet effectively highlights the painful ambivalence of the words. Both singers and instrumentalists try to stay on the surface of their feelings, with repeated reassurances that the separating lovers will stay in touch and that their careful plans for saying goodbye will make the parting less hard, but the underlying sorrow of the moment breaks through, despite their best efforts. Still, the song ends more hopefully than the poem, by returning to their faith that they will always know each other in the future.

We close with “And I Saw,” based on a poem by dramatist and literature professor Josephine Preston Peabody (1874-1922). In her twenties, she was introduced to the Lebanese-American mystical writer and artist Khalil Gibran, and they continued to correspond for many years; his ideas may have influenced her own. This work begins with almost an oracular fanfare, yielding to excited, overlapping repetitions of the title phrase in all the vocal parts, as though the singers cannot even begin to express the amazing vision itself. At last, the vision becomes as clear and triumphant as the new heaven described and illustrated by English mystic William Blake—the world transformed by love.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan