Break Forth Into Joyous Song and Sing Praises: the Doctoral Composition Recital of Geoff Wilcken

For those of you, who like me, enjoy the choral music tradition, nothing is better than getting to hear or perform new works that draw richly upon that tradition, yet show that it is alive and growing with new songs and insights. One such composer that proves that point is Geoff Wilcken.

I first came across his skill almost 20 years ago, while performing with the Fine Arts Chorale of Kansas City, where I was awed with his setting of “The Holly and the Ivy”. Though my path and that of the Fine Arts Chorale diverged soon after, Geoff continued arranging and composing songs for them and others over the years. It was in the past year that I became reacquainted with Geoff when asked to join the Songflower Chorale, which he now directs, for one of their concerts . Once again I was amazed with the depth of his composing skills. He creates pieces that can at once seem so modern, so now, and yet also feel a timeless part of the choral tradition.

Which is how I now have the privilege of performing as one member of the Songflower Chorale for his doctoral recital 3 p.m. this Sunday, Nov. 20, at the First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, KS., 946 Vermont Ave. All interested are invited to attend.

Geoff is a doctoral music composition student at Kansas University, and this recital is that capstone recital featuring works that he has composed while a part of the doctoral program the past four years. Which, alas, means no reprise of “The Holly and the Ivy” that I liked so well, arranged long ago, and an arrangement, not an original work.

However, that does mean that this concert features much more than just choral music. As a member of the chorale I am well acquainted with the pieces we will be performing, but I am also intrigued with what I have been told about the non-choral numbers. So let me give you a tease about those first.

The program is  going to open with four vignettes for flute and marimba which Geoff describes as “musical considerations of the possible imaginary futures which may await us.” Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever heard marimba and flute paired together before, but it sounds very intriguing. They will be followed by another piece for flute and marimba which studies “organizing pitches between two players”.  Obviously a recital has to show certain technical skills of the composer, but I’m guessing this piece has an element of fun, as the marimba attempts to “steal” a note from the flute.

The location of the recital is First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, KS, which has “the largest pipe organ in Kansas”. Thus it is fitting that several of the selections use organ, with Dr. Eliza Bickers as organist. Key among them will be the “pre-premiere” of a composition called Rosette.

Rosette was commissioned by Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, KS, in 2014 for the dedication festivities of their new Richards and Fowkes organ, which will be ready for use (it is anticipated) in the coming year. As it is Bickers who will perform the work during that dedication, she has graciously consented to “pre-premiere” the work at Geoff’s recital.

There will also be some unique pieces. One piece, Dog in the Kitchen, Bunny on the Couch, is a musique concrete, put together from real recorded sounds manipulated by technology. Another, Mind, is an electronic poem combining sounds of the human voice and synthesized instruments.

The choral numbers will be interspersed with the non-choral. As mentioned, some will use organ, while others will be a capella (one of my favorite vocal forms).Three of the pieces use sacred religious texts, one of which opens with some very interesting harmonics (no, I won’t say any more — you’ll have to come and  hear it).

But perhaps the most unique number, chorally, is Antipostmetasemanticism: An Allegator.In this piece Geoff plays with the sonic side of text, exploring in three different settings how text adds meaning to music. He does this by using text with “no verbal meaning.” For the mathematically inclined, this includes, at one point, the alto section singing the digits that make up the “number e”, the natural logarithm.

The recital will end with what seems to me a very natural greeting or benediction: Canon for Now. I will close the blog with its text:

Now is the moment of  beauty and blessing; 

Now to all present be grace and peace.

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