Instead of practicing the same old choir tunes by long-dead composers, they’re rehearsing a series of new compositions written for the choir by four composers from around the globe, including local indie rockers Sama Dams and Alan Singley. The 150-student-strong choir will join with the two bands on April 18 for a concert called “Joined Voices” at the First Congregation Church in downtown Portland
“The rationale,” says choir director Ethan Chessin, “was [this]: in English class you study Hamlet, but you also learn to write essays. Why is it that in music class we just perform works that have already been composed – we just study the master works? Why don’t we give the students the tools to write their own music?”
Chessin is a slight man with a shock of dark, curly hair, and an easy smile. If it weren’t for the suit and tie, he’d blend right in with his students. He has taught at Camas High School since 2011, but before that, he was touring with March Fourth Marching Band and directing a rock opera chorus.
The idea to bring in some of those old friends was sparked by an unexpected run-in with local pop artist Alan Singley. Last January, Singley showed up to one of Chessin’s choir concerts. He says he saw the invite on Facebook.
Singley says he’d been thinking about a choral composition after a recent trip. “I went to the national cathedral, and I saw a choir sing there with my mom, and I was like, I wanna do choir next,” says Singley. “And then also I wanted to work with a high school.”
So, they decided to team up. Chessin would commission choral compositions from Singley and a handful of other indie artists; the choir, in turn, would get to see what the composition process looks like. They’d give feedback, write some songs themselves.
Chessin sought out four very different composers to work with. There’s music from local indie band Sama Dams. There’s an experimental piece by Aldo Rohlfs, who makes music and films down in Mexico, but has a daughter in Camas.
“The name of that piece is ‘Universal Language,’” Chessin explains. “He wrote it for us completely blank, so the students actually came up with all of the lyrics. Some of it are names of people in the choir. Some of it are just sounds they like.”
The third composer is Wendy Spitzer, AKA Felix Obelix. She and Chessin go way back – they actually went to camp together when they were kids. These days Spitzer’s living in Prague, but she skyped in with Chessin’s women’s choir to hear what sort of composition they wanted to sing. Chessin says, their message was clear: “We like being in choir, but women’s choir is boring. And we only get to sing about the sweet, happy, lovey things. We want to do the fun stuff that the men’s choir get to do.”
In response, Spitzer wrote something that sounds like nothing else. It’s rock music, it’s spooky, it’s angry – and it’s about topics that young women’s choirs don’t often sing about: violence and relational aggression. Spitzer also wrote a 16-page history of a Czech Republic church that’s decorated entirely with human bones.
And then, of course, there’s Alan Singley, who composed four pieces for the group, including a couple of adaptations of Gary Snyder poems. “The experience has been very educational, as I don’t actually have a degree in any of this” he says. “So I had to get a book about how to arrange for a choir from the library.”
And as Singley and the other musicians learn how to adapt lyrics and arrange for the choir, the students at Camas High School get a front row seat in the process.
“Alan Singley talked about how it’s like a block of ice, and you just chip away until you’ve got the whole sculpture,” explains Junior Jonah Bates. “But Wendy likes to start at the bottom and slowly add it all together until you have this huge piece.”
These pieces don’t really sound like a high school choir. but they’re not exactly indie rock either. It’s something new and unpredictable, which, Chessin says, is the whole point.
“It’s so easy to just go and perform and have your parents show up and say, ‘Oh that was nice, let’s go out for TCBY!’ But I want them to get in their cars with their parents driving home afterwards and for their parents to go ‘wow, what was that!?’”
The Camas High School Choir will take the stage with Alan Singly and Sama Dams for the “Joined Voices” performance on Saturday, April 18th at the First Congregational Church in downtown Portland.