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Mysterious fireflies inspire a composer to take on crazy 21st century living: Slow down and listen

Houston Chamber Choir video commissions
The Houston Chamber Choir rehearses Jocelyn Hagen's Soft Blink of Amber Light. Photo by Joel Luks
Houston Chamber Choir video commissions
Artistic director Robert Simpson seeks to engage both established and emerging composers in an effort to perpetuate the art form's relevancy. Photo by Joel Luks
Houston Chamber Choir video commissions
The evocative work is scored for choir, flute, clarinet, marimba and piano. Photo by Joel Luks
Jocelyn Hagen composer Houston Chamber Choir
Jocelyn Hagen says that "soft blink" can be compared to a heartbeat. Courtesy of the artist/Facebook
The Church of St. John the Divine
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According to Native American folklore, fireflies are remnants of stars that fell from the heavens. A Japanese legend suggests that fireflies are the tears of the child of the moon, her sadness engendered by fulfilling a destiny that required her to ascend from Earth to the sky. Some scholars say the Aztecs believed that fireflies were the souls of warriors, the lights hovering above the grasslands acting as a sign that their spirits were omnipresent.

Whether it's the mystique of how the bioluminescent insect glows or humanity's need to layer metaphysical meaning to anything that at one time in history couldn't be explained, the flashing beetle captures the imagination of anyone who is preview to the fantastical setting it creates.

For one American composer, the imagery of fireflies and their environs is a painterly metaphor that reminds people, especially those who are hooked on the fast-and-furious pace of 21st century urban living, to slow down, breathe, recharge and rediscover the beauty that lies in simplicity.

 "The poem is very true to our time. Our culture today is so attached and even addicted to technology and staying connected. This piece is about getting away from all that."

Jocelyn Hagen's Soft Blink of Amber Light, inspired by Julia Klatt Singer's poem How To Live in the Modern World, was commissioned by the Houston Chamber Choir. The evocative work, scored for choir, flute, clarinet, marimba and piano, will make its world premiere as part of the professional ensemble's "Favorites and Firsts - Hear and Now" concert Saturday night at The Church of St. John the Divine.

The program also includes other recent works commissioned by the Houston Chamber Choir from composers such as David Ashley White, Christopher Theofanidis and Dominick DiOrio.

Music for our time

What originally attracted Hagen to Singer's text was the author's way of intertwining vernacular and philosophical subject matters. Singer writes:

Forget about streets with names
follow the fireflies into
the thicket, smell the damp earth
let the darkness inside
let the night steep
let the world drift to sleep
as you become nothing
but the brush of wings, ancient
mating dreams, the soft
blink of amber light.

"The poem is very true to our time," Hagen says. "Our culture today is so attached and even addicted to technology and staying connected. This piece is about getting away from all that and connecting with nature and yourself."

Hagen's life has changed significantly since growing up in the small town of Valley City, North Dakota. The 2010 McKinight artist fellow settled in downtown Minneapolis after earning a Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf Collage and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Minnesota.

"The busy city life has been exciting and wonderful as an artist, but I look forward to a time when I can get back to open spaces," she adds. "I find that as an artist I have to turn everything off, step away from my desk and take long walks, play with my kids and exercise. These are the activities that help me tune in to my creativity and gather inspiration."

 "All of the great composers of our period are very interested in closing the loop. It starts with their inspiration and their composition, but it isn't complete until it is heard, enjoyed and experienced by an audience."

With the use of a repetitive contrapuntal approach, Hagen focuses on the opening words, "forget about." As the lyrics meander about the different voices somewhat antiphonally, the texture reimagines the flickering visual milieu of fireflies fluttering about in a bucolic background. The "soft blink," she says, can be compared to a heartbeat.

"I guess I'm also trying to tell the audience to forget about all those things," she explains. "Forget the never-ending to-do lists, the stress — and just listen."

The composition builds with lush, French-like sonorities and dissolves into twilight, as if the text itself was dwindling into a hazy reverie.

Closing the creative loop

Being a catalyst for the creation of new music has been a guiding principle for the Houston Chamber Choir since its inception nearly two decades ago. Artistic director Robert Simpson seeks to engage both established and emerging composers in an effort to perpetuate the art form's relevancy. Commissions have to be practical to stage, challenging for high school, college and professional choirs, and be appealing for musicians and listeners.

"I am old enough to have lived through a period when composers were very proud of the fact that they didn't give a hoot about the reaction of the audience," Simpson says. "It was all about them. But that's a period that's fortunately is in the past

"All of the great composers of our period are very interested in closing the loop. It starts with their inspiration and their composition, but it isn't complete until it is heard, enjoyed and experienced by an audience."

In the video above, watch as the Houston Chamber Choir rehearses Jocelyn Hagen's Soft Blink of Amber Light, with commentary by Simpson and singers Michael Walsh, Wayne Ashley and Mark Marotto.

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The Houston Chamber Choir presents "Favorites and Firsts - Hear and Now" on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at The Church of St. John the Divine. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22.50 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-5566.

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