UCC scholar wants to challenge assumptions about choral music

US-born composer James May will have his prize-winning work performed at Cork International Choral Festival, writes

UCC scholar wants to challenge assumptions about choral music

US-born composer James May will have his prize-winning work performed at Cork International Choral Festival, writes Ed Power.

It’s a long way from Pittsburgh to Cork – though perhaps not quite as far as you might think. So believes avant-garde American composer James May, of the opinion that his home town and his adopted base in Ireland have a shared tradition of music eclecticism.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” says May. “I’ve also spent time in Louisville, Kentucky and I see a lot of parallels between all three. The strongest parallel is that, within the contexts of their state or country, these cities are midsize.

“They are large enough to be self-sustaining. But not quite large-enough to feel that everything is always going on. As a result the things that are going on are built by local people and supported by local people — almost as a grass roots mentality to making art.”

May has embraced Cork’s DIY tradition since coming to study at UCC under a prestigious George Mitchell Scholarship. The fruits of this meeting of sensibilities can be experienced this weekend at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral as he premieres a new experiential piece for Cork International Choral Festival.

Chamber Choir Ireland will perform ‘Street After Street Alike’ — an avant-garde work that challenges assumptions about choral music. It is inspired by the writings of American poet Hilda Dolittle and interrogates spiritual beliefs in a post-industrial era. That sounds like a lot to chew on. Which is precisely the goal of 24-year-old May.

The George Mitchell Scholarship is funding his MA in Experimental Sound Practice at UCC. His Choral Festival project was, for its part, the winner of the 2019 Seán Ó Riada Composition Competition (awarded in honour of the iconic Cork composer).

“The competition is really interesting,” says May, who has grandparents on his mother’s side from Galway and Longford. “They were asking for pieces that thematically engaged with the content of the programme Chamber Choir Ireland was already presenting about spirituality. When we think of a spiritual text or meditative text, we tend to think of nature.

“I was very interested in finding a text that had a similar sense of meditation — but was more about a modern era of industrialisation. The text I wound up choosing was by Hilda Doolittle. It’s about navigating [life] in the context of living in a bustling city at the beginning of the 20th century.”

That sounds quite cerebral. But the performance will not be entirely terrifying to those more familiar with conventional choral music. With the human voice there are limits as how far you can push things for a mainstream audience, May believes.

“There are certain sounds we’ve come to expect [from choirs] and which are absolutely stunning. They don’t go as far in pushing the voice in the same way that contemporary music would push what an instrument would do,” he says.

You have to accept that. There is a practicality to composing. You want people to engage with your music. Even though thematically I am coming from an avant-garde place, I think this piece is more accessible in terms of the work I have done.

During his time in the city he has also worked with the Cork Audio Visual Ensemble (C.A.V.E.) – a group interested, as is May, in pushing experimental music to its limits. Cork’s avant-garde music community is not large and so it was to be expected he and the ensemble would cross paths.

“C.A.V.E. is fabulous to have,” he says. “It is a UCC-based ensemble. The masters course I am on is brand new. When we came in in the fall it made sense to our professors for us to be involved with that ensemble. It was the essence of what our course was waiting to explore. C.A.V.E. is wonderful – it presents experimental music in way that is accessible and appreciable.”

He also performs and is assistant conductor with Cork Contemporary Choir, a group he will be competing with in the mixed voices category of the choral festival.

Overall he’s been stunned by the vibrancy of Cork music. “The music scene here has so many things going on and I was shocked to see how successful they were. Then, in the last few months, from attending shows, playing shows, meeting people – it’s not surprising at all. It’s because there is a group of people here invested in making their home town a vibrant place.”

James May.
James May.

Cork International Choral Festival begins on Wednesday. Chamber Choir Ireland premieres Street After Street Alike at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Friday

Gala concerts

Opening Gala Concert Cork City Hall, Weds The Fleischmann Choir and CSM Symphony Orchestra will be among the groups celebrating the work of Jean Sibeliusand the Carl Nielsen.

PUST (Norway) City Hall, Thurs The Oslo group have a repertoire that includes Scandinavian folk, jazzy tones, and all sorts of worldly and natural sounds.

Chamber Choir Ireland St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Fri Part of the programme entitled ‘Before Bach and After’, which presents the music of the great composer alongside workds by Brahms, Schütz, and a variety of medieval and contemporary composers. James May’s piece will also be performed on the night.

Evocations – Helene Stureborg’s Chamber Choir Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne, Fri The Stockholm choir return to Cork for a performance at the North Cathedral.

Fleischmann Gala Concert City Hall, Saturday (3pm and 8pm) Across two sessions, some of the world’s top amateur choirs competing for the Fleischmann International Trophy.

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