Friday, February 15, 2013

How Tommy and Ricky and Lucy Won The War

I'm beginning this post with an unusual offering from YouTube, and I hope you take a moment to view it.

What do you hear in these two songs produced in 1962 in Czechoslovakia? What do you see on screen, especially in the second song?

The 'trombone flash mob' (decades ahead of its time) looks back shamelessly to Tommy Dorsey and the other great big bands of the 1930's and 40's. It's wonderful writing and playing, light-hearted, cleverly filmed. It's American Jazz, created performed some eight times zones away from New Orleans and Chicago.

The second song is based again in American Jazz...our protagonists in the car are a close knock-off off Ricky and Lucy, complete with a clownish side kick to keep things moving. Or, if you will, a Rob and Laura (Dick van Dyke show anyone?) complete with a Morey Amsterdam knock-off!

Now look back at 1962...lessee...Bay of Pigs just past us, the mortar on Berlin Wall still hardening...everybody armed to the teeth...John LeCarre's The Spy That Came In From The Cold fresh on the market,  Dt. Strangelove in the air. And Tommy Dorsey and Ricky and Lucy enthusiastically emulated behind the Iron Curtain. In a way, it's as if the West had already won the contest, but no one sent news back home.

Fast forward to 1987, everybody's on edge again, and...

Billy Joel shows up in Moscow

Notice the shot about 23 seconds in....

It's easy to be simplistic, tempting actually, to advocate some idea of 'Let's all just hold hands and sing and peace will descend upon the planet.', but we all know that life is not like that. If that model worked, we would have arrived at that point in the 19th Century with Beethoven's Ode To Joy.  Game/set/match/I'll buy the first round of beers.

Life is not like that, not remotely. It's messy out there.

However, what composers and performers and teachers of music do really does matter. Music really moves the cultural ground under people's feet, for better or worse. The music industry (aka 'Duh Biz') would have you believe the lie 'We just reflect culture, we don't form it, so you can't criticize anything we produce and sell, don't matter none, just let us get on with making moh' munney-hunney...' 

It matters, a lot. Enough that Islamic fundamentalists attempt to ban music, and fundamentalists and despots of all persuasions attempt to control and expropriate it for their own ends.

So I suggest we remember a few simple facts:

Not everyone can do what we do, even though we don't understand how people can't do what we do.

We create things that burn into the hearts and minds of our audiences, if we're doing our jobs properly. We create lifelong memories, for better or worse. We shape the language of the culture, for better or worse. Think on the moments when you have had to pull the car over to the curb to recover from a song you heard on the radio for the very first time.

That's what we do, if we're doing our jobs.

All this written to give a word of encouragement and hope. If we're doing our jobs, we move the world around us, in ways we often don't understand or even see immediately, and we get to move it in a good direction.

Back to work.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Collaborators And Creations: Tim Sharp/Rejoice The Lord Is King

Summer of 2006 in the UK was...HOT!!

As in over 100 Farenheit hot, pasty northern European people collapsing from the heat hot. I had the joy of walking practice rounds at The Open (not The British Open, they will frostily remind you. It's The Open, thank-you-very-much-Yankee.) Those £2 bottles of water sold at a rapid clip, and Hoylake golf course outside Liverpool turned a uniform shade of brown. Not a breath of wind, sitting on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic. The greens turned to concrete. Balls that landed on them just kept on rolling, and rolling. Didn't phase Tiger a bit, though, as he won at 16 under...

It was hot, and his conditioning training paid off. He looked fresh at the end, while those chasing him wilted.

All in all it was a most memorable two weeks in the UK, hot though it was.

I found myself in Cambridge for a few of those days, with an assignment from the intrepid Tim Sharp: He provided a library reference at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I would locate the manuscript of George Frederick Handel's sketches of three hymn tunes set to texts of the Wesley brothers--two by Charles and one by John. With some legwork, I found myself in the reference room in the museum basement.

I turned up at the appointed hour with my little slip of paper with the reference numbers, sat at the table assigned me, and presently was greeted with a librarian and a bound volume of Handel manuscripts, turned to the exact page.

I took out my manuscript paper and pencils, and viewed the page. It then dawned on me that Mr. Handel had actually applied that ink to that piece of paper. From his imagination to that paper to this hot day in 2006 in was simultaneously exciting and humbling. The reference room felt like a sauna, I was sweating...whatever you do, Wes, don't touch that paper!

Three hymns to copy out, carefully, carefully. Just melody lines and figures, very straightforward, in that non-fussy Handelian sort of way.

One of them especially caught my eye: Rejoice, The Lord Is King. Handel had really nailed the text with that tune, and he seemed to sense it. There was a bass line and figures past the statement of the tune, as if he intended to return to it to develop the idea further. Being human like the rest of us, he never got around to it. But it was intriguing! What if?

Tim encouraged me to work on this one first, as he planned to take it on tour of Ireland and the UK, and perform it alongside Messiah in Dublin in commemoration of the first hearing of the masterpiece.  I went to the edition drawn from the Dublin version and set to work. It felt like walking a tightrope: This thing had better by-golly sound like Handel, not Wes. It took some time to achieve, and I came away with a deepened understanding and love for Handel's craft in the process.

Final draft was prepared as the financial markets (and it seemed at the time, the world) were coming completely unhinged. There was a real sense of joy in working with this text, which included lines such as 'His kingdom never fails, he rules o'er earth and heaven'. The contrast between the chaos of events and the order of Charles Wesley's and Handel's creation was striking, and comforting. 

Tim kept his encouragement coming, and provided a brilliant suggestion on ending the piece in true Handelian flourish.

It worked!! The Harmony International choir gave a rousing Irish premiere, and Tim soon followed up with a USA premiere. We were both so proud to have a hand in such an exciting, singable creation.

Follow this link to hear a live recording of the US premiere Tim conducted in Augusta GA with the Davidson Chorale, and to review the score. 


We created an SATB-orchestra version, as well as an SATB-organ reduction. Both are available to purchase.

Orchestra parts are available for rental--just contact me as wes(dot)ramsay (at)

We keep it simple and affordable--we want you to enjoy singing 'Rejoice, The Lord Is King' as much as we enjoyed creating it!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Collaborators And Creations: Tim Sharp and High Lonesome Mass

I've worked in many collaborative situations over the course of my working life, some public and official and others somewhat less so.

One of my favorite, public and official collaborative friendships over the past twenty years has been with Dr. Tim Sharp, Executive Director of American Choral Directors Association. He is a one-man inspirational franchise--conductor, business executive, author, editor, scholar, Pied Piper, banjoist and composer. He's a Force of Nature, the Iron Man of choral music, the person who lights up the room when he enters. He also shows up with brilliant ideas for pieces of music, the latest being High Lonesome Mass. 

Only Tim would arrive in town, set up the meeting at Noshville Deli near Nashville's Music Row, and propose we set the Ordinary of the Mass to bluegrass music. He had Southern Harmony tunes picked for each of the five movements, and we set about outlining our approach on a legal pad. A few months and drafts later, we were in the studio with Nashville's finest (including the Opry's bass player), recording stunning tracks and preparing to roll out the premiere performances.

Composer Paul Carey was in attendance at the Chor Anno performance in September 2011, and shares glowing words about the piece:

Come Away to the Skies is intended for concert presentation or within a liturgical service. Most of the performances so far have been in the concert mode, and recently added special slide shows and lighting designed by Tim and Wes have made the work an even greater success with audiences. The piece is not meant as a tongue in cheek novelty item with a fake feel to the bluegrass music- the music and texts have substance and creativity and truly represent the melding of traditions in the best possible sense. With that said, don't expect anything stuffy and academic- at the Chor Anno performance little grannies in the audience around me were tappin' their toes, especially to the Credo! The piece, which embraces both simplicity and also sublime matters of faith as well as musical folk tradition in this country, was a major highlight of the Chor Anno concerts.

High praise indeed, from such an august source. I'm certainly flattered!

I've heard, and sometimes been in attendance at other performances, most recently at Berry College in Georgia, where the band included my old friend and colleague Stan Pethel.  It's a joy to watch the piece come together, especially with college students, who may not be conversant with either the mass form or the great traditions of bluegrass music and Southern Harmony tunes. I've seen succeed as a concert piece, as well as integrated into worship.

Four performances are already scheduled for 2013, and the piece travels to the UK and Ireland in December 2013.

For those interested in performing High Lonesome Mass, we keep things simple. You purchase the vocal scores, rent the instrumental parts, and are given our blessing to perform it to your heart's content during the license period. My music prep and library service handles all the printing/shipping of the instrumental parts. Vocal scores are made available for download from a link I provide.

I can be contacted at wes(dot)ramsay(at) for more information.

Here's the Credo--hope you enjoy. By the way--that banjo player in the video? That's Tim!