Chantey? Shanty? Chantez!

There has been a nerdy little debate rumbling through the ranks of Clerestory’s singers and board: is the word for a traditional sea song ‘chantey,’ ‘shanty,’ or something else entirely.

Oxford dictionary prefers ‘shanty,’ but gives the origin as the French word ‘chantez’ (the imperative plural of the verb ‘to sing’). Merriam-Webster prefers ‘chantey,’ offering the British ‘shanty’ as the first alternative. They are both agreed on the definition of the word: a rhythmic song sung by sailors whilst performing their work.

Jesse discovered this excellent blog post on the word debate, but also the history and practice of singing sea songs.

Clerestory will offer several chanteys in our SeaSongs program, and we invite you to weigh in, not only to our syntactical debate, but in suggesting some of your favorite maritime songs. Let’s sing—chantez!

Give me the nerve… To sing fast

Eric Banks:

20120929-213043.jpgFor the second movement of the cycle, Give me the nerve, I have composed two lightning-fast rounds that are sung by the four innermost voices in the ensemble. In order to create and relieve tension over the course of the piece, I played with three different levels of canonical delay.

The first melody is sung first in unison, then as a duet (two singers against the other two), and then individually, in very quick succession. The effect is completely wavelike, and a little mesmerizing. For the second melody, I begin with the rapid individual foursome, then move to the duet, and then unison – employing the canons in the opposite order. With this architecture, the most unsettling part of the piece is in the middle, exactly where the sailor’s “prayer” can have its strongest effect. The outer four voices, by the way, sing the same texts as the inner four, just much more slowly, providing a reverent backdrop for the chaos of the stormy four-voice rounds. Here is the complete poem:

Give me the nerve
That never will swerve
Running out on life’s ledges of danger;
Mine, mine be the nerve
That in peril will serve,
Since life is to safety a stranger.

When roaring below
The cataracts go,
And tempests are over me scudding;
Give, give me the calm
That is better than balm,
And the courage that keepeth new-budding.

Inspiration II: America’s Cup

Click the picture for the America’s Cup San Francisco page.

The other major inspiration for SeaSongs is the 2012/13 America’s Cup races in San Francisco. The America’s Cup returns to the U.S. for the first time in two decades, and the already maritime-mad Bay Area will be gaga for ships, sailors, swells, and all things related to the sea. SeaSongs aims to capitalize on the zeitgeist, but also to honor the rich repertoire of choral music inspired by the sea. In addition to our own new addition of These Oceans Vast, by Eric Banks, we will sing ocean music of Monteverdi, Brahms, Milhaud, Vaughan Williams, Crabtree, and more. We hope to reprise these fall concerts with a performance next summer in conjunction with the America’s Cup finals. Perhaps Piers 27-29, which are being totally renovated and reinvigorated for the event, will have a Clerestory-sized space ready for some chanteys and SeaSongs! We’ll keep you posted.

Color Wheel—Poetic Emotions

20120920-090618.jpgHere are a few more paragraphs from Eric Banks about These Oceans Vast:

When I have composed large cycles in the past, I chart out my associations between the keys signatures of the “circle of fifths” and the color wheel.
For me, especially when setting poetry about nature, there is a quick and easy association between the subjects in the poetry and color, and therefore key.
In this Melville cycle, so much of the imagery was watery (and therefore blue), that I needed a different axis about which to spin my color wheel.
After reading the poems through several times and arranging them into the order of this cycle, it occurred to me how many different emotions
the poet expressed – from the optimism of the beginning, to fear, despair, loneliness, exhaustion, and the joy of making landfall on “The enviable isles.”
When I began to write, I made a list and mapped out Melville’s emotions on a color wheel (using basic associations like red is for anger, blue is for sadness,
etc.). Then, I realized that others much more skillful than I had already done this online.

Check this out.

After encountering something like this, it was easy to assign certain strophes of Melville’s poems to one of twelve color groups, and then, into a key.
For the most part, every key signature is represented in These oceans vast. However, some get a bit more air-time than others.

Inspiration I: Moby Dick

SF Opera's "Moby Dick"SeaSongs had its genesis when Eric Banks was in town for our Spring 2011 Into the West concerts. He, Justin, and Jesse were talking about future possibilities, and Eric brought up a set of Hermann Melville poems he’d been interested in for a long time. Justin remembered that SF Opera was premiering Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick sometime this fall, and the SeaSongs project was born. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect–the start of our season with coincides with  the opera’s premiere. We are a featured ancillary event on the opera’s site, and you can read more about Moby Dick or get tickets here.

Although they bear no direct relation to Melville’s novel, the poems Eric set in These Oceans Vast are nautical and highly evocative of the writer’s style. Anyone who wrestled the great white whale in high school literature classes will feel eddies of Melville in these poems, and will hopefully be inspired to revisit this giant in American literature.



Venue hunting II

At long last we bagged the elusive unicorn! Or rather, we finalized our venues for SeaSongs. Look for full details within the week, but for now, please read about the fabulous final East Bay location:

The East Bay performance of SeaSongs will be at the incredible Craneway Pavilion conference center in Point Richmond. The Craneway complex sits right on the bay waterfront and has quickly become the crown jewel of East Bay event venues — and the acoustics are incredible. We expect the sun to set at our backs during the concert, weather permitting! Easy freeway access, a huge parking lot, and the Boilerhouse restaurant on-site round out an unforgettable concert afternoon. Learn more about the Craneway — an original Ford motor factory and now the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site.
Learn More






Meet the composer

Eric Banks earned his BA in Composition (1990) at Yale University, and his Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Music Theory and Choral Studies at the University of Washington. In 1997, Banks was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm; there Eric performed with several groups, including the Swedish Radio Choir and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir.

In 1992, while still in graduate school, Banks founded the professional-caliber chamber chorus, The Esoterics. Now in its nineteenth season, Seattle’s most innovative chorus has drawn local, national, and international praise for performing rarely-heard compositions of contemporary music for unaccompanied voices, for infusing elements of the literary, theatrical, and visual arts into the typical concert experience, and for performing settings of poetry, philosophy, and spiritual writings from around the world. The Esoterics has performed over 300 concerts throughout the Pacific Northwest, has commissioned and premiered over 150 new works for a cappella voices in dozens of languages, and has mastered many of the most virtuosic choral works of the last century. The Esoterics has released fourteen CD recordings to favorable reviews in The Gramophone and American Record Guide. In recognition for their efforts in choral innovation, Banks and The Esoterics have been honored four times with the ASCAP/Chorus America Award for the Adventurous Programming.

In his music, Eric is drawn to ideas that are ‘esoteric’ in origin, and chooses to express and elucidate concepts that are undiscovered, under-represented, or not easily decipherable by a wider audience. As a composer, Banks has harnessed his passions for foreign poetry, classical civilization, comparative religion, social justice, and natural science – to create choral works that reach far beyond the scope of the established a cappella canon. As a composer and choral scholar, Eric has been awarded several grants, from the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation (2005), 4Culture (since 1999), Seattle City Artists (2007), a composer’s fellowship from Artist Trust and Washington State Arts Commission (2007), and three ASCAPlus Awards (since 2009). Together with The Esoterics, Eric Banks has received two grants the National Endowment for the Arts, to compose, produce, and record his most recent concert-length works – Twelve Qur’anic visions (2007), and The seven creations (2010). In both of these works, Eric set melodies that he found in field research while traveling in Indonesia and India, including the Arabic tajwid (Islamic Qur’anic chants), and the Persian gathas (ancient Zoroastrian hymns). In the summer of 2008, Banks presented the paper Contemporary American Choral Music Inspired by Islam at the inaugural conference of Arab choral music, Aswatuna, in Petra, Jordan. In 2012, Eric received awards from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Composer Assistance Program of New Music USA, and his choral ballet Approaching ecstasy was premiered in Seattle to wide critical acclaim.

In June 2010, Eric was granted the prestigious Dale Warland Singers Commission Award from Chorus America and the American Composers Forum to compose This delicate universe, a cantata based on climate-change statistics, for the choral ensemble Conspirare in Austin. He currently holds commissions from the Boston Children’s Chorus, Cantori New York, Clerestory, Kitka, the Philippine Madrigal Singers, Seattle Opera, the Singapore Youth Ensemble, and Voces Nordicæ. Eric taught music theory, music history, musicianship, composition, and voice at Cornish College of the Arts from 2004 to 2012, and has been a visiting scholar at the Cama Oriental Institute in Mumbai, India.


These oceans vast :: The enviable isles (VI)

by Eric Banks on Friday, August 3, 2012 at 8:23am ·

Here’s the last movement of the cycle, the one I’m working on right now.


VI. The enviable isles


Through storms you reach them and from storms are free.

Afar descried, the foremost drear in hue,

But, nearer, green; and, on the marge, the sea

Makes thunder low and mist of rainbowed dew.


But, inland, where the sleep that folds the hills

A dreamier sleep, the trance of God, instills—

On uplands hazed, in wandering airs aswoon,

Slow-swaying palms salute love’s cypress tree

Adown in vale where pebbly runlets croon

A song to lull all sorrow and all glee.


Sweet-fern and moss in many a glade are here,

Where, strown in flocks, what cheek-flushed myriads lie

Dimpling in dream—unconscious slumberers mere,

While billows endless round the beaches die.

Venue hunting . . .

Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

The SeaSongs project is off and running! Eric Banks is composing away, the singers are choosing music, and we’re searching for the perfect aquatically situated venues to sing these nautical tunes. The first concert will be hosted by our friends at Community Congregational Church in Tiburon–a lovely community with a Bay view to die for. Come early to enjoy the last rays of light on their lawn overlooking the water. Saturday the 20th of October, we’ll be on the piers of Fort Mason in the fleet room–an evocative and rustic venue right on the bay. We’ll have news about our East Bay space soon. Watch this blog for more info.