by Diana Landau
It’s not unusual for the Chatham Chorale to commission new music. Or for that music to use words by a writer closely associated with Cape Cod—as in 1991, when the Chorale introduced Ron Perera’s setting of The Outermost House by Henry Beston, or when Perera set several Mary Oliver poems for chorus in Why I Wake Early. But when the group presented the premiere of North Beach Journal: A Chatham Rhapsody, with music by William Cutter and text by Robert Finch, on May 19 and 20 at Chatham High School, Finch also was onstage as a member of the Chorale. Definitely a first.
It all started late in 2010, when the Chorale’s board and its musical director, Joseph Marchio, hatched a plan to commission a new work for Chatham’s 300th anniversary celebration this year. Various ideas were floated, including a competition, but ultimately they found the right musical and literary resources close to home. Finch, whose essays on the natural and human life of the Cape have been widely published and are heard weekly on WCAI radio, offered them for possible use. “At that point we realized, ‘what were we thinking?’” says Marchio, “because Bob already had material that was so pertinent.”
Then Marchio contacted William Cutter, his friend and former conducting teacher at Boston Conservatory, who knew the Cape well and whose music the Chorale had already performed. “Bill Cutter was always on my radar to do this, since I had worked with him and thought his choral compositions were terrific,” says Marchio. Would Cutter be interested in setting some of Finch’s words in a piece around twenty minutes long?
Forging a Collaboration
He would indeed. “Bill was excited to be part of the project and was very generous in working with us,” says Marchio. The next step was putting composer and author together. Cutter came down to Chatham for a lunch at the Wild Goose Tavern, and they hit it off right away, recalls Marchio. “I mostly just sat there and enjoyed this wonderful conversation between two artists.”
“Then I copied a batch of material from various works of mine and sent them off to Bill,” recalls Finch, who has sung with the Chorale for more than three decades. “It didn’t have to be Chatham-specific, so I included all sorts of locales, just looking for passages I thought had some potential musicality. But it was always Bill’s choice.”
Cutter has been composing since the ninth grade. “Choral singing was really my way into music,” he says, and he prefers writing vocal music “because the musical ideas are already there in the words.” Making time for composing in his packed schedule (he’s the full-time director of choral activities at MIT along with teaching at Boston Conservatory) is the main challenge. “It takes a lot of energy, planning, reading, thinking about the music, then the actual writing: doing musical sketches on the piano, working out compositional ideas at the computer, and so on.”
With this assignment came another challenge: “Bob writes in prose, of course, and that’s very different from setting poetry. The sentences are longer, and the thoughts are more complex,” Cutter explains. He concluded that trying to condense a whole essay wouldn’t work, “so I just went with images and words I thought had strong musical ideas behind them—where I could hear exactly what music that phrase would evoke.”
North Beach Set to Music
As it turned out, the words that spoke to Cutter were Chatham-centric: he chose excerpts from a Finch essay titled North Beach Journal, which describes the writer’s solitary sojourn at one a friend’s cottage on Chatham’s North Beach, the week before Labor Day of 1979. “For the entire week I saw no one else,” Finch says. “It was an experience of intense psychological isolation” as well as a deep immersion in this stripped-down world of sand, sea, weather, sounds, and light.
Though Finch could not have know it at the time, North Beach Journal (both the essay and the musical work) today constitute a kind of elegy for those remote beach shacks—some taken by nature, others demolished by the National Seashore. “I was surprised, because I didn’t think Bill would want to set that much text to music,” says Finch, “but it seemed appropriate, especially with the razing of the five cottages this spring. It seemed a way of preserving the memory of part of Chatham’s identity.”
Cutter’s composition uses four excerpts, including a prologue titled “Monomoy Island” (actually from a different Finch essay). In this brief opening, separate choral voice parts utter fragmentary wisps of phrases, then join together in longer statements, suggesting the “illusory, ephemeral” quality of that protean strip of sand, periodically forming and then submerging into Nantucket Sound. The second movement, “Rowing,” tells of the writer setting off across the inlet from Chatham “about 5 p.m. last Sunday in a small red rowboat” to reach North Beach, and muses about rowing as metaphor: “One is always pulling oneself backward, into the unknown, steering by what one has experienced or left behind.”
Cutter was strongly drawn to the rowing image—“how the sense of going backward affects your perception,” he notes. “The actual physical rowing I represented in the figuration of the bass line: a rising series of notes with more stress at the start, “because there’s more pressure at the beginning of the rowing gesture.”
The third and longest movement, “This House,” is a densely composed sketch of a day midway through Finch’s stay, his frail dwelling cocooned in Chatham’s famous fog and his mind immersed in the unseen life of the sea: plankton, moon jellies, barnacles, and sea-worms—to which he feels akin, “anchored to this house, throwing out feathered legs and tentacles of myself….”
The calm and stately final movement reflects the writer’s unexpected response upon returning to the mainland: “the intense joy, the simple wonder I felt encountering other people again, and the recognition that, however great my love of nature, my home was in the human community.” For Joe Marchio, “this elegant, almost Bachian chorale pulls things together at the end, so that all the wonderfully creative and complicated writing concludes with a simple statement.”
The Composer at Work
Cutter’s design for the work reflected the journey described by the text. “I always think about the tonal relationships between the movements [how a section composed in one key transitions into the next],” he says. “I’m also aiming for variety in tempi and character. The first movement I wanted to be impressionistic, the middle two have ever-increasing rhythmic motion, and the last one is a hymn.”
It helped Cutter to know in advance exactly what instrumental resources he had to work with. North Beach Journal will be performed on a program with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s great cantata for peace, Dona Nobis Pacem, in an alternate reduced orchestration of strings and piano—in part, Marchio notes, because a larger orchestra wouldn’t have fit in the intimate space of the hall. Says Cutter, “When I do have a limited color palette, it forces me to think more imaginatively about how can I use the strings for four movements yet give each one a very different texture.” He also took advantage of the soprano soloist that the Vaughan Williams employs.
Finch is fascinated by how composers like Cutter hear and interpret the written word. “They hear possibilities the writer isn’t even aware of,” he observes. “Some of this has to do with polyphony—their ability to break up the text into several overlapping voices. Or to use harmony and pitch intervals to bring out certain meanings or create mood.” But beyond such specifics, “I think he has really captured the sense of mystery and isolation of the Outer Beach.”
Bringing the Music to Life
While the ultimate effect for listeners should be magical, preparing a new work for performance is more of a sweaty business. “It’s exciting and challenging to prepare a work that has never been heard before,” says Joe Marchio. “There are no recordings of it, none of the usual tools we normally call on for practice. All we have are ourselves and the music. The Chorale will put the inaugural stamp on this piece, though of course we hope it gets performed many more times.”
About this he has no doubt: “I think it’s an extraordinary work.” When he first handed out scores to the Chorale, says Marchio, “I told them, don’t judge the piece until you’ve had a chance to learn it and perform it. But even from just sight-reading the first movement, I think the group really took a liking to it.” Another handicap was not being able to hear the orchestral parts, “which are really equal in importance to the choral writing—much more so than in most choral works,” he says. “I’m so excited to hear everything finally come together.”
For Bob Finch, it was a special though not always comfortable experience to rehearse North Beach Journal. “There’s something weird about singing your own words,” he admits. He will evade this dilemma by serving as narrator instead. “We decided that it would help the audience to have a little scene-setting at the start of each movement,” says Marchio, so Finch will read his own narration while his compatriots do the singing. He has attended every rehearsal, however—so who knows? He just might get carried away in performance and raise his own strong voice in the bass section.
Diana Landau is a writer and book editor, and a soprano in the Chatham Chorale. Her musical accomplishments include performing in an avante-garde opera premiered recently in New Orleans. More on this to come!