Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Leap of Faith - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Jason Noble

Braving the icy chill from Edmonton's abrupt onset of Winter composer, Jason Noble, shakes off the bite of the windchill as he enters the warm surroundings of Remedy Café.  He sits down to discuss the premiere of his newest choral work, Missa Remissionem Peccatorum. Pro Coro Canada sings the debut of the piece at their concert on Sunday. In addition to his work as a choral composer, Noble is a musician and PhD researcher at McGill's Music Perception and Cognition Lab. Noble sings with voces boreales, a professional choral ensemble founded by Pro Coro's Artistic Director, Michael Zaugg. Missa Remissionem Peccatorum is Noble's largest choral work to date. Drawing upon his previous history with Zaugg as a singer, Noble states that it gave him a better perspective when writing a piece for one of Zaugg's choirs. "Zaugg has a compositional approach to conducting. He looks at scores so analytically. There might be sixteen independent lines going on at one time and he helps choirs see harmonic underpinnings, understand global textural effects, and how each note functions in terms of the overall sonority.  As a composer, that is how we would look at a score too,'" Noble says with a tone of deep appreciation. "He's also very passionate about contemporary music," Noble continues,  "to have somebody gifted at bringing out inner intentions and the compositional structure of a piece... it was a real gift," Noble states as he reminisces about his time when Zaugg conducting voces boreales in Montreal before moving to Edmonton.

This Sunday will not be the first time in which Pro Coro has premiered one of Noble’s works. "The first piece that I wrote for Michael was The Shadows Flee Away which Pro Coro did over a year ago. I think everybody would agree it was a difficult piece. It was 16 parts throughout with polytonal layering, lots of textures, and [Pro Coro] did a great job," he states.  "As much as I was happy with that piece, it helped me grow as a composer," he says.

Taking what he learned from that experience, Noble kept what worked and applied it to the Missa Remissionem Peccatorum.  As a result, there is some continuity between the two works. "In the beginning of the Gloria, for example, there are just four notes sustained but every singer is articulating the text at their own free pace. Later the Sopranos and Altos have this canon where there is a floating texture above and in the tenors and basses there is more of a homophonic chorale," he says before apologizing and continuing with a burst of explanatory excitement. "Basically, you've got two textures going on at the same time. One is the sparkly texture over top and the bottom appears as a unified statement of familiar chords.  Also, the crossfades where you have one choir decrescendo as the other choir does exactly the opposite with a crescendo," he explains. There is intent behind every aspect of Noble's musical construction: "There may be a straightforward D flat major chord but one of the voices on the third may make it major or minor. Other voices may move in microtonal intervals that are not major or minor but more like a band in pitch space. It is this destabilizing thing that takes you out of familiar harmony.  It is that moment of trepidation and instability which the audience will feel as much as the singers." There is also a section where singers are instructed to sing their lowest comfortable note. The pitch descends into a “black cloud of undefined sound,” ridding the section of any harmonic identity. These are all techniques that Noble uses to highlight the textual meaning in the piece. 

There are challenges associated with setting sacred text for secular audiences and still making it relevant. Noble casts a contemplative look downwards while he formulates his loci of thought into words: "Liturgical composers in earlier eras could just accept the text as something the audiences both know and believe. We live in a multicultural age now. Where we have people from all different backgrounds of faith and no faith. It would very naive to assume modern audiences will receive these texts as universal truths or as affirmations of unifying faith as audiences from previous eras might have. I think a lot of composers in the 20th and 21st centuries cut themselves off from tradition, whether that is musical or religious. The idea of complete renovation. Something radically new and different. I believe that we still have a lot to learn from the wisdom that has been handed down to us through the ages. The emphasis on the now and the new may be the sources of problems we face in the world today. Maybe those previous generations knew a few things that we would do well to learn from, including the teachings of faith. I try to find values in those teachings that are morally legitimate, even in the world today, without alienating people from any background.  For me, the concept of forgiveness is one of the most powerful ones. I don't want us to live in a world that loses the ability to forgive.  As opposed to radical individualism, where you're only thinking about yourself and your own needs. We all make mistakes and I want to believe that we can still forgive others and ourselves even in a secular world.”

The concept of forgiveness is poignant in Noble’s Kyrie section.  "The movement is about the confrontation with sin. Sin is the recognition of having done wrong in whatever moral sense that means to you. That sense of shame and self-reproach that is familiar to most people. The Kyrie is not a prayer to some sort of deity or God, although it can be interpreted that way if you wish, it's more of a hope that wrong can be set right. And wrong, once done, doesn't have to define you forever or be irreparable. Mercy is essentially a hope this can heal. Not a literal request for somebody to set things right for you. Just a hope and faith in the universe and in other people that forgiveness and reconciliation is still possible even wrong has been done," Noble summarizes with a philosophical fluency.

There is a sense of balance while Noble outlines how his personal upbringing has shaped his worldview: “I wasn’t brought up in a church-going family. My parents wanted me to grow up and make up my own mind. Now I sing in a Cathedral Choir, so I have more exposure to the teachings of Christianity than I did as a child. I think I take it in the same way I take philosophy books or other works of Art whether secular or sacred. All of them have something to teach me. All of them have something meaningful and beautiful that I can make meaningful in my own life. It’s not about which one is right or wrong. It’s about finding the value and meaning in all of them that come together in my own personal worldview. I'm hoping to convey something through the selection of text and through the music that I write.”

Art communicates through the transmission of meaning from one mind to another. This concept ties in with Noble’s research at McGill where he investigates the processes of thinking and interpreting that are common between people. Even though there are breakdowns in the message between his compositional intent and audiences, he notes that the process is a leap of faith. “As a composer, I know that meaning is always interpreted against a subjective context that is constantly evolving for everybody. By definition, it is impossible that the meaning that I have in my mind while writing is going to be the same for any one member of the audience let alone all of them,” he says while laughing at this lofty goal.

Noble views himself as a top down composer: “I don’t start with motives and materials and build something up out of them. I start with global intuition and feeling I am trying to work with. From that intuition, I get a sense of form. And then down from there into selecting materials that are appropriate to the concepts I am working with. Form and material and concept are all very interwoven with one another. There are still lots of choices to make, if I ever get it right!” he says while laughing before continuing. “What I want the work to be is clear from the beginning. If it is not clear, then I spend lot of time meditating on what I am trying to achieve. In the pieces I am most proud of, the musical choices follow almost as a matter of course once that concept is worked out.  I try to restrain myself from moving on until the concept is very clear. To the point where it’s almost self-propelling and the process unfolds where I feel like an observer and not an agent. That doesn't happen every single time but it happens at the best times,” he states in describing his compositional process.

There is an importance in how new music can document contemporary cultural identity: “We live in an age where identify is very plural and divided. In a big way, one of the reasons why I want to be a composer and write works like this is to draw attention to values that stand apart from the general cultural and moral currents around me. It would be far easier to produce music in a popular domain, using techniques, which are known to be popular. I don't want Art to be a commodity. I don’t want it to be something that’s just there to give people what they ask for because they ask for it. If you do that, then you just reinforcing people in what they already know. Which means Art will never move forward. Art will just become the perpetual recycling of things that are already known to be pleasant, and that’s not how new meanings are discovered. Our age deserves to have a unique voice. Our age deserves to have an expression through Art that documents and expresses what is unique about being alive today. How our age is not the same as ages past. What are the challenges we face? What are the feelings that we deal with? I don’t believe the best way to achieve that is by using the materials earlier musical ages have generated. But, at the same time, Art loses its power altogether if it’s written in a way that too esoteric or arcane that people can’t relate to. I don’t want to be a strictly academic composer that is only writing for my colleagues in the University while the rest of the world is unaware.  I want to write thing that have the potential to reach out to people but challenge them. Open their eyes to things that might not familiar or comfortable. I hope, by my leap of faith, that they find meaning in,” he summates, highlighting many of the themes from the conversation.

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude when a Noble professes how honoured he is when a choir gives his music a voice. He clenches his fist in front of his chest, "it lives in here for months," he says before noting the sense of release he feels when he hears it live for the first time. “I really admire Pro Coro. I think it’s great you have a performing ensemble of this caliber here in Edmonton and that you do take on these challenging projects and master them to the degree that you do,” he says with affection. Thus, it was fitting that Noble’s opening statement to the choir at rehearsal on Friday night was just simply: “I love you.”

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