By Laura Hawley – Cantiamo`s Accompanist, Associate Conductor, and Composer-In-Residence
I like to compose in the mornings. Like many people I know, for me the early morning time at home with my coffee can be a pretty special, quietly joyful time. And, like many composers and writers I know, making it a priority to “sit in the chair” every day, to write, is essential. So, it makes sense for me to try to do my most creative work in the morning hours, in that time of stillness before the pace of the world picks up. I like to do my “sitting in the chair” before looking at my phone or cracking open the computer; before I check-in with the world. And so, it was quite a surprise when, settling in for a quiet evening of Christmas tree-trimming, I opened up my computer to put on some festive tunes, and found that on that particular evening, the world was checking in with me!
Having a video suddenly go viral is quite the experience. I’m so grateful to my friend Elizabeth Bowman of Bowman Media; whose expertise in artist PR management helped me steer a clear path and keep focused through the many interviews, emails, and engagements. When Robert Fillion premiered my piece, “Alhamdoulillah” as part of his children’s choir festival, “Les Choralies de la salle,” a video of the performance was posted on YouTube with the mysteriously inaccurate title, “Canadian choir welcomes Syrian Refugees”. The video instantly went viral, reaching over a million views in only a few days, and Robert and I were both overwhelmed by the volume of response coming our way. Contrary to what the title of the YouTube video suggests, Robert had actually been dreaming of a choral piece that would incorporate Muslim elements for years, and approached me about it so long ago, I can’t even remember how long I’ve been thinking about the commission! Robert and I have tried our best in all media interactions to set the record straight on the true story: the project originated as part of Robert’s dream to continue his festival’s all-inclusive approach by commissioning a piece that would incorporate Muslim elements alongside French elements (since this was for a festival of children’s choirs from the French school board). He commissioned me to write this piece over a year ago, and it was premiered at a concert in early December. (More can be found about this story through various online news sources.)
The thing I want to focus on here – what strikes me most about this whole experience – is how intentions can manifest sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Speaking for myself, I would say that in any composing effort, there is a specific quality of energy and intention that one puts into the work as it is being created. For me, this project at its core was all about gratitude, appreciation, connection, and celebrating each other.
It seems simple enough, and the intention behind the bigger picture was clear, but I had some compositional questions for myself: How will I draw in both Muslim and French elements? How will I create something that is honouring to the Muslim tradition, to the singers, and to the listeners? How will I incorporate newly-composed music alongside this traditional song in a way that fits with a style quite new to me, and where is my own compositional voice in all this? Most importantly, can this music be a vehicle for human connection and joyful celebration of one another? Can this be something the choirs in this festival will love singing?
Pondering the text of the traditional Middle-Eastern tune that forms the centrepiece of this composition, I felt the song expressed a sense of gratitude that we can all understand and relate to immediately. With this feeling in mind, I searched for French poetry that would complement this message, and the gracefully simple delivery of Jacques Prévert’s poem, which begins “Vivre, c’est aimer,” seemed ideal. I also had the idea of opening the piece with a passage influenced by the Muslim call to prayer, and searched for a word or phrase that I could use to this end. I found this word, “Alhamdoulillah” in my research, learned how to pronounce it properly, and did some reading about its meaning. I loved this word immediately because it sounds so beautiful, and I thought it would be beautiful to sing. I found, in my reading about this word, that sometimes its use reminded me of the word “Alleluia,” while at other times its use reminded me of the phrase “Mazel tov!” It seemed to be a word that was multi-layered and nuanced, but that also, in my limited understanding, encapsulated a feeling of joy and gratitude. Perfect!
This project was a compositional challenge for me. I was working with a musical style I hadn’t had much exposure to before, listening to a much as I could online and consulting with a local Imam and with a young women, Amira Ewalghaby, who works for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (I became connected with Amira and the NCCM through a collaboration between St John’s Anglican Church where I work and the Kanata Muslim Association) to make sure I was proceeding in a way that would be honouring. While organized singing certainly does exist in the Muslim tradition, as far as I was able to tell, choral singing as we usually know it here in Canada, doesn’t! Nevertheless, amidst my feelings of “Is what I’m doing going to turn out ok for everyone impacted?” I felt excited with how the piece was taking shape. Some of my questions had been answered: I had the Muslim and French elements combined, I was pleased with how the new melodies were taking shape, I’d decided to use the piano in a way that would mirror the rhythms of the drums I’d heard in my listening, using the piano more like a percussion instrument, I had tried to capture some of the harmonic language I’d tried to absorb in my listening, and, well, I thought it sounded pretty good!
The biggest surprise for me was this: even though I was writing in a style different from anything I’d done before, when I completed the piece, I found that my compositional voice was right there all along! I noticed some of the main things that seem to grab my creative musical interest lately such as layering different phrase lengths together and playing around with meter. More importantly though, I notice that a lot of my writing in the past few years has been, to put it simply, joyful!
Sitting in the semi-darkness of my living room composing this piece, I had quietly worked away at what I hoped would communicate my expressive intentions of gratitude, inclusiveness, and celebration of one another. This is the part of this experience that has been so mind-bending for me: although the overnight fame of this piece was a direct result of a complete misunderstanding of what the video was actually showing, the original expressive intention of the project was completely unaffected! What began as a local choral project about connection, inclusiveness, joy, and gratitude, became a global experience of exactly these things. The outpouring of gratitude and appreciation that came my way via email, phone calls, Facebook, and YouTube comments was more than I could comprehend. I suddenly began to picture myself like those graphics you see at airports with arced lines showing trajectories from that particular airport to all the different destinations one might travel to from that place. As if the small kernel of joy came out of my living room and suddenly just travelled all over the world, just like that, completely intact! I watched with fascination as, and it still feels strange to say this, a global reaction unfolded, with people all over the world expressing their gratitude and love toward Canada, and then with other arts organizations posting videos welcoming refugees and opening their hearts to those in the world who struggle. It wasn’t long before I had the sense this choral event had taken on a life of its own, the size of which was bigger than I was able to still see in a way that I could understand my relationship to. I struggle to describe this.
On a personal note, this experience has led to innumerable new connections even just in my own life; with musicians, choirs, scholars, academics, teachers, publishers, people in my community, and others. I continue to receive heart-warming messages from teachers and conductors; such as the teacher in Maryland who told me that working with her class on this piece opened up an unexpected sharing session in her Grade 4 class when two boys in the class were inspired to share songs they knew from their home countries of Venezuela and India!
I never could have guessed at this stage that the joyful energy I put into this music would reach so many people all over the world.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the magazine, Dynamic.