Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) has distinguished himself as an innovative composer and a dedicated teacher of the creative process of composition. He started his career as a jazz drummer in Chicago and New York, studying composition all along. That is where he has made his mark, with commissions from prestigious ensembles all over the English-speaking world and a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards under his belt. He currently lives in Toronto when he is not touring the world teaching middle- and high-school teachers and their students how to compose. To see deeper into Colgrass’s fascinating life, check out the blog related to his autobiography, or visit his website, or watch the Emmy-winning documentary that his son made about his music. Or, for extra kicks, see his Wikipedia biography.
Colgrass wrote Old Churches in 2000 on a commission from the American Composer’s Forum. From the score:
According to composer Michael Colgrass, Old Churches is one of the most challenging pieces he can remember writing. His goal was to create music that was interesting, expressive and challenging, yet playable by students in the early stages of performing on their instruments and who are also unfamiliar with modern music techniques.
His solution was to write a work based on Gregorian vocal chant with unison melodies. Playing in unison helps student musicians feel more confident, and allowed Colgrass to copiously double the melodic lines. The tempo is slow; the phrases are all in quarter and eighth notes, and the harmonies are simple. Some easy graphic notation and chance techniques are employed, such as pitches played without rhythm, and a murmuring effect that simulates the idea of voices echoing in monastic churches. Colgrass hopes that Old Churches is a piece that conveys emotion at the same time it makes young bands sound good.
Old Churches uses Gregorian chant to create a slightly mysterious monastery scene filled with the prayers and chanting of monks in an old church. Gregorian chant is ancient church music and that has been in existence for over 1500 years. The chant unfolds through call and response patterns. One monk intones a musical idea, then the rest of the monks respond by singing back. This musical conversation continues throughout the piece, with the exception of a few brief interruptions. Perhaps they are the quiet comments church visitors make to one another.
Old Churches as performed live by the Detroit School of the Arts Wind Symphony:
What does Colgrass mean by Gregorian chant? Here is a shining example, complete with pictures of an old church, sung by a soloist:
So many avenues are available to explore Old Churches: GIA publishes a downloadable study guide for the piece. Colgrass featured it front and center in his 2004 Midwest Clinic presentation about middle school bands: the handout is here. Old Churches has dedicated write-ups at the Wind Repertory Project, the American Composer’s Forum, and Hal Leonard. It was also featured in a master’s thesis (pdf download) at Kansas State University.