Diary: Stars

by James M. Potter

For a concert with my choral group, Fratres, I’ve been preparing a piece by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. It’s a setting of a poem, Stars, by Sara Teasdale, and the composer sets it for a choir which accompanies itself on tuned wine-glasses.

Rehearsal the 1st

Rehearsal time is at a premium, so I intend to use this one to introduce the singers to the general principle. I bring along some wine glasses which I’ve liberated from the cathedral kitchen and initiate a sort of aptitude test. I point at people to see if they can play their wine glass on demand (a rather crucial skill in performing the piece). The results are positive – some quiet but silken sounds, some even throbbingly resonant. There’s the odd squeak which is less like someone running their finger around a wine glass and more like someone trapping a mouse in a wine glass, but there’s clearly potential. I reassure the squeakers that practice will make perfect, and that not everyone needs to play a glass anyway.

I proudly produce from my rucksack a Tibetan singing bowl, bought from a vendor in Lhasa. I’m hoping it can be used to beef up the sound. My ‘gap yah’-style bragging is a little deflated by the reality that this singing bowl prefers to sing a note somewhere within the semitone between B and C and is therefore rather useless in this context.

Rehearsal the 2nd

Some groups, performing this piece, choose to hire out especially resonant and playable sets of wine glasses for the purpose. I’ve decided in my wisdom that it’s not really worth doing this for a 5-minute item, and so have assembled a motley selection of mildly resonant goblets and flutes. I’ve spent an enjoyable afternoon voicing two examples of the different varieties of glass at home and am pleased with the discovery that they can provide the notes I require. The tall flute-like glass delivers a stonking top F#, a ringing E, and an acceptable if unstable D. The squat but sizeable goblet manages a B, an A, and a rather muffled but still present G. Armed with a measuring jug and cackling like a mad scientist, I note down exactly the amount of water required to make each note. “B4 – 50ml. G4 – 200ml.” Perhaps this will be easier than I thought.

Perhaps not. Upon attempting to copy my success with the other glasses, I end up with wildly divergent pitches. It transpires that this particular corner of the Church of England doesn’t feel the need to have a uniform size of wine glass (in my Father’s house there are many mansions) and so each will necessitate individual attention. After a while, though, my little glass army of misfits is singing together in passable 6-part harmony.

At the rehearsal, we have a go at singing and playing at the same time. Having realised only shortly beforehand that, of course, both hands are required to play a glass that one is holding, I fail to provide music stands, and so the singers sit on the floor, the music arrayed in front of them. It feels comical and ritualistic at the same time, sitting in attitudes of meditation and turning the corners of pages with moist fingertips.

The Performance

On the day before the performance, disaster strikes. I come in for evensong to discover that my array of painstakingly-tuned glasses, left somewhat foolishly in a corner of the cathedral without a note explaining their purpose, have disappeared. I find them back in the kitchen, standing on their ends and looking somewhat ashamed, suds still clinging to their sides. I will need to come in and re-voice them in the morning.

This done, I return in the evening to find that some of them are rather sharp. It’s warm in the cathedral and some of the water must have evaporated. I hurriedly top them up while the organist practises in the background.

The performance goes well. The concert is themed around the stars and the heavens, and we end with the wine-glass piece. I spend some time agonising over the pronunciation of ‘Ešenvalds’ in my pre-performance chat, but it turns out I should have spent more time sorting out ‘Boethius’, which I make sound rather Frencher than it probably should. Regardless: the sound of the glasses is redolent of starlight, and the humming voices emerge from the sound into words. The piece was originally written for a group in Salt Lake City. In Utah you can see rather more of the glory of the heavens than in built-up England, but even so, tonight the stars above Tom Tower are clear, and I can pick out Orion and a couple of others.

Here’s a little clip of the piece from the concert performance: