Jeffrey Parola, The Star Who Composed “Stars”

Jeffrey Parola is a brilliant, visionary composer who has blessed Choral Chameleon with his musical talents for the 2009-2010 season.  I interviewed him about his latest composition for the Dec. 12th concert.

You visited New York City the week of Choral Chameleon’s Day of the Dead concert.  How was your trip?

Most of my visits to New York have been spent playing tourist; but venturing to New York to hear my works performed added a layer of significance to this particular visit.  The Chameleon concert was THE major highlight, in addition to visiting friends and walking the grand city streets.


What did you take away from the Choral Chameleon concert on Nov. 1? 

I was moved by the programming, and felt that the difficult subject of death was treated in a unique, beautiful way.  Though I enjoy All Souls Day concerts that feature Mozart, Brahms, and Faure requiems, I loved the variety of repertoire on Chameleon‘s Day of the Dead concert, which offered a diversity of perspectives on death.

What was it like to hear the choir sing your pieces “Giant Mirror” and all three movements of “Sempiterna?”

I enjoyed hearing Giant Mirror come back to life.  I wrote it in 2004 for a choral composition competition at the San Francisco Conservatory, at which it received its first and last performance, until Chameleon resurrected it.

Sempiterna has a special place in my heart, since I wrote it to commemorate my grandfather’s death. I think it worked well in the context of the Day of the Dead concert, and I liked that each of the three movements were spread throughout the program. The choir did a fantastic job, especially with “In pace,” as they seemed to master the phrasing of that movement.

Choral Chameleon’s Dec 12th concert is called “Choose Something Like A Star” after the Randall Thompson choral piece of the same title.  I first sang this in honor choir in 9th grade!  What’s your history with this work?

Choral Chameleon brought Thompson’s piece to my attention about a month ago, prior to which I had never heard it.  I did a little research, and listened to it a few times. Limited listenings have not yet inspired informed opinions, though, I do find it beautiful on the surface.

 Vince Peterson (artistic director of CC) encouraged me to write a piece connected to the “star” theme of the concert, which led me to seek star poetry.  I found a great poem by Robert Frost, who also penned the poem on which Thompson’s piece is based. Thus, there is a connection between my and Thompson’s pieces.

What is the title of your new composition for Choral Chameleon’s holiday concert?

The new composition is called Stars, based on Frost’s 1915 poem of the same name.

From where did the inspiration for this composition come? 

As I said above, I sought to write a piece thematically consistent with the December concert’s theme. Initially, I though I would write a “Christmas Star” piece, but the poetry I found did not move me.  Then I thought I would find something a bit subtler, and looked for “star” poems that might somehow relate to Christmas.  I found some great ones by Blake, Hopkins, Rossetti, and others, but the one that caught my eye was Frost’s Stars. I found myself immediately attracted to its sense of wonderment, awe, loneliness and isolation.

I initially doubted the poem’s relationship to Christmas. However, after some thought, I realized a connection could be made by focusing on the events that led to the birth of Jesus.  As Joseph and Mary sought shelter to prepare for Jesus’ birth, turned away by several people along the way, they must have felt lonely, doubtful and skeptical that what was about to happen was truly an act of God.  The evening sky, the chill of the night air, and the cold indifference of fellow man must have created for them layers of immense physical and psychological difficulty.  Though Christmas is often celebrated cheerfully, it is ironic that Jesus’ birth was achieved with a large amount of apprehension and anxiety.

How much of “Stars” had been written prior to Choral Chameleon’s Day of the Dead concert?

None of it!

Did hearing the choir perform influence your new composition? Did you get new ideas after the choir’s sound was fresh in your ear?

Hearing the choir gave me insight as to how I should play to Chameleon‘s strengths.  I noticed that the group sounded best when singing vertically, when all of the vowels and consonants matched from soprano to bass.  So, Stars is a bit more homophonic than my other choral works.  Also, while writing it, I kept in mind that Chameleon would have little time to rehearse the piece ahead of the concert, and I minimized the piece’s difficulty-level, whileattempting to express the sophisticated message of Frost’s poem.

When you compose something, do you gain a sense of completion and think, “it’s over, it’s completely finished” or does it tend to feel unfinished?

The double bar line at the end of my compositions rarely indicates completion, and each piece undergoes a heavy editing process. Even though there’s always room for improvement, I eventually let go and move on. I think of my compositions as having their own lives, and at some point I need to let them live on their own beyond the formation I initially gave them. So, in that sense, yes, I think my compositions feel finished after they’ve matured a bit.

How does your new composition compare to your other pieces CC has sung this year?

Sempiterna explores the process of death, which concludes with a clear message of peace. Giant Mirror answers the “why are we here?” question, and celebrates it.

Conversely, Stars is skeptical and, perhaps, somewhat nihilistic. The stars in the sky, though ageless and beautiful, are indifferent to our short lives here on this earth. What we do in this life seems to mean nothing to them, and goes unnoticed…if my interpretation of Frost’s poem is accurate, that is!

The resulting musical material attempts to express a longing awe inspired by viewing the beautiful starlit sky, while simultaneously evoking the loneliness and vulnerability of the viewer.

Are you coming to the Dec. 12 concert?

Yes, I will be there, and I am excited to see and hear Chameleon again!  It is such an honor to know and write for such a great group of talented people.

How is your large work for the April concert coming along? 

I’ve finished all of the choruses for Such Beautiful Things, and am about to send Vince a stack of music so he can study them over break! The solo movements are in the works, and will be done soon. I’m thrilled by and proud of this piece, and I hope Chameleon and the audience enjoy it.

Working with librettist, Tony Asaro, has been a great source of inspiration and joy for me. His lyrics sing right off the page, and it’s been incredibly easy to set his text.

Such Beautiful Things is based on a Grimm’s tale, The Traveling Musicians, which tells the story of musicians – in the form of various animal characters – who are scorned by their respective societies. Each musician escapes the oppressive grip of their society, meeting other musicians in like-situations along the way, hoping to find a place where they might be valued for who they are and what they do.

This story can be applied to many socio-political realities, which makes its message that much more profound. I have found that working on it during the current economic crisis to be quite timely, since the arts are almost always the first victim of a budget cut. It is easy for an artist in this day and age to feel meaningless, devalued, and unappreciated when society is quick to pull support for the arts.

Having said that, the story ends with hope, as the musicians find a place where they can make music, and fear nothing for it.

This blog is written by Andrew Cook-Feltz.


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