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One from the Folder: Repertoire Thoughts for Women’s/Treble Choirs

Shelbie L. Wahl-Fouts of Choral Net

“Wild Embers” by Melissa Dunphy
Text by Nikita Gill
SSAA, a cappella

I met Melissa at the Composer’s Fair during the recent ACDA national conference in Kansas City. On the hunt for new women’s/treble music, I especially wanted something that would speak to the singers in my choir. When I walked up to her table, I knew I’d found the right place. She had a number of works for SSAA ensembles, and every one of them had a purposefully-chosen poetic text that rose off the page along with the music. Her work had life and energy and feisty passion, and I wanted to program it all! Besides being an award-winning composer, Melissa herself is an amazing soul, and is the embodiment of the creative artist I want my students to know exists as a role model. Among her works, “Wild Embers” is at the top of my list for a future performance.

The text for Melissa’s piece is by British-Indian author Nikita Gill. She is often labeled an “Instapoet” for her fame as a writer among the social media crowd, but her poetry has far more substance than the name may imply.

Wild Embers
We are the descendants
of the wild women you forgot.
We are the stories you thought
would never be taught.

They should have checked the ashes
of the women they burned alive.
Because it takes a single wild ember
to bring a whole wildfire to life.
–Nikita Gill

I read the poem on the front cover of Dunphy’s score, and was instantly drawn to the imagery. There is a power and a presence in the text that I know my singers will grab on to – a story to be told that is very real and vital to them.

Thinking in the future tense, I can see this selection being the contextual centerpiece for a choir’s tour or festival set, or for a thematic concert. You could focus a whole set on Fire: both the literal flame and the metaphorical passion/strength/energy. I got going on this idea after looking at “Wild Embers,” and now I’m hooked. You know that feeling once you go down the rabbit-hole of programming…an idea sparks, you run with it, which takes you to another idea and another concert, and so on. I’m already making a list of other possible companion pieces and can’t wait to see what this future concert set becomes.

Dunphy’s musical setting is a nice balance between difficult and accessible. The piece is SSAA, unaccompanied, in 3/2. At certain places in the music, there are four separate musical or rhythmic ideas happening. So, the piece is truly SSAA in areas and may be challenging for groups that struggle with part independence. However, there are also places which are S1+S2 and A1+A2 (two-part with harmony), or homophonic, or unison.

The piece does includes some tight dissonances, voice crossings, and a few tricky rhythms in 3/2 (including borrowed figures). However, with practice, these are all within the grasp of most ensembles.

The nature of Dunphy’s composition emphasizes Gill’s story, beginning with the pp “Shh” that opens the piece. The “shushes” come back at varying points throughout, as if they are the wild ember bringing the fire to life. Dunphy’s opening motives build to a ff melismatic point at “Wild wild women,” and adjust the tonality with added flats. After the ff dissipates back to p, the “ssh” returns, along with a single stomp and thigh clap at the beginning of each measure. This very simple, very clean body percussion brings a rhythmic cohesion and drive to the piece, but doesn’t add additional tonal complexity or visual distraction. Another p ff pp progression happens near the end of the piece, as the wildfire builds and generates energy, then dissipates into a final “ssh.”

I was pleased to meet Melissa and her music at the Composer’s Fair, and I hope many other similarly serendipitous meetings happened with other composers and conductors. Her work has energized me as a conductor, and I look forward to approaching this music and the text with my students next year, as we prepare for a concert set yet to come.

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